A mountain area in Idlib countryside near borders with Turkey crossed by refugees while heading to Turkey
With ongoing armed clashes inside Syrian territory, and poor security and living conditions in all areas, many Syrians were forced to leave their homes and try to travel outside Syria, whether to seek better opportunities or because they were forced to do so as a result of shelling, arresting, forced displacement or otherwise.
During the years of the Syrian revolution, more than seven million Syrians were distributed to neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. However, the largest share of the refugees was for Turkey, due to Turkey's leniency with those fleeing from Syria at the beginning, in addition to the length of its border with Syria.
With the increased security tightening on the border, it is difficult to escape from Syria and enter the Turkish territory, but this opened a big window to human smugglers, who were able to exploit these poor conditions, and then began to organize themselves as big gangs controlling part of the Syrian side of the border.
NSO team monitored some smuggling operations from Idlib to Turkey, where we met a number of victims who talked about the details of what had been going on since the beginning of the smuggling trip. We also met a number of persons who had worked with human trafficking to find out more about those trips, during which hundreds of lives were lost.
* Exploiting travellers by the smuggler begins before the trip starts
The smuggling process starts from Idlib to Turkey by choosing one of the smugglers. Some try to find the least cost, while others show they are willing to pay large sums for guaranteed access to the border. He may have to try more than ten times before he crosses if he succeeds.
Khalil al-Ali, from the province of Raqqa, said he returned to his city recently after losing more than $ 1,500 because of failed attempts to enter Turkey. Adding that the smuggler tried to convince the displaced that the crossing would be easy and the road would be safe, that the money he will pay is little, comparing to other smugglers.
Khalil explained that after each failed trip, the "guider" forced the displaced to pay $ 100 in compensation for his labour, stressing that this was often at gunpoint. The "guide" required his travellers to pay the money back before arriving in the city.
About the roads used by the smugglers, the guider Abu Muhammad said: The roads are many, but the most prominent is the Durriah road in Drakush area and the Salhab road in the Salhab area, which is called the valley road, adding that: There are other ways such as the road of al-A'ssi River, and Khirbat al-Jouz road, and al-Yamadia road, stressing that the roads are changed after being discovered by the gendarmerie and that each smuggler has a dedicated road that prevents its use by others.
Khalil added that the smuggler takes the people who agreed with to a remote often deserted place, where those who wish to travel can stay for four days under the pretext of securing the road, but in fact postponing the process to gather as many people as possible. During this period they may ask for additional payment under the pretext of changing the plan, as the exploitation of passengers begins before the trip starts.
After that, another person appears to be superior to the rest of the smugglers, and receives the money from those who want to enter Turkey, they are about 150 people at every point, to be taken out to the forests where they meet there with hundreds of others, according to "Khalil" adding each trip involves about a thousand people, distributed to groups that take different routes.
Khalil pointed out that each group, accompanied by three people affiliated to smugglers and knew the roads in the area. One of them walks in the front of the group and the other behind it, the third one stays far behind, adding that two of the escorts are armed, while the person accompanying them would be unarmed.
Louay, a young man from the city of Homs, said there was no specific price for smuggling, where the person who tried to cross the border previously paid $ 300 or $ 400, but for the person who is trying for the first time may pay 1,000$. Saying that the smugglers were deceiving the people and saying they would take a military route in agreement with the Turkish gendarmerie, but the road, which is supposed to be walked by two hours, according to them, takes more than 12 hours in fact.
* Gangs monopolize crossing roads and kill competitors
There are large numbers of "smugglers" in the border towns and cities. Anyone who wants to cross from Syria to Turkey can ask local people in the area about the smugglers, and they will easily point them out. However, the people interviewed by NSO reporter confirmed that these are not the real smugglers, they are followers of senior smugglers who run and control these operations.
Abdullah Mahmood, 23, from Aleppo eastern countryside, said he tried at least 18 times to enter Turkey and failed, He said he knew a new smuggler every time and had to pay the same person every time. He tried to cross twice a month for nine months.
Abdullah explained that he lived for nine months with smugglers and was able to get to know them well, saying that he was dealing with the so-called "young smugglers" who were working for a bigger smuggler who receives their money. Adding that he did not expect smuggling to be controlled by gangs and big mafias.
Abdullah said that the big smugglers monopolize the smuggling areas and do not allow others to work within, although this was possible years ago, he added that during the time he was among the smugglers, he discovered that whoever fights the big boss over the smuggling operations could be killed, He was a witness to a clash between two groups of smugglers early last year on one of the smuggling routes in Drakush, because one of them violated the path of the other, pointing to the deaths of 3 people on both sides.
Abdullah Hussein, 21, from Idlib countryside, said that smuggling people to Turkey was allowed for everyone, especially for people from the border areas, adding that it was a matter of time when the big smugglers began to extend their authority over these operations by preventing hundreds of smugglers from working independently, and then take them under their authority as guiders or "Dalil" as they are called in the region.
Abdullah explains that the "guider/ Dallil" is a person who works for another smuggler. His tasks include exploring the road and entering the Turkish territory with the people until they are delivered to the Turkish smuggler, who in turn receives 100 $ for each person.
* "Dalil" do not care about the death of the travelers and prevent the search for the lost
Abdullah said the "Dalil" abuses travelers on the road, They do not care if someone dies, gets lost in the woods or gets hurt when they cross the mountains, they even do not allow people to search for the lost, on the pretext that this delay the smuggling, adding that those who refuse to obey will be left without returning anything of what he paid.
The 27-year-old Sultan al-Muhammad from Raqqa says he witnessed the death of a young man on the road because the guider refused to help him, saying the "guider" initially promised them that they would not walk more than two hours, but after spending about five hours, one of them, a young man, was about 30 years old, passed out. They tried to help him after they knew that he was suffering from a heart disease, but the "guider" shot them because they refused to leave him. One of them was shot in the foot and forced them to leave the patient and continue walking.
Sultan added that the number of members of the group was more than 500 people, but the guiders alone were armed, and the area where they walked was away from everything and no one knows the way to follow or return, only "Dalil" know, so they can not violate their orders on the road, adding that people who crossed within a group after they crossed, told them that they found the young man dead and that the "Dalil" prevented them from carrying his body to the hospital.
Hassan, who is from Aleppo northern countryside, confirmed he tried to cross many times and every time they lost a number of women and children in the forests without the smuggler being bothered for them, which forced one of their relatives to remain alone to search for them after giving up the "Dallil" for what he paid for himself and the members of his family.
Hassan added that the smuggling process is always at night, as travellers walk among the forests, preventing them from turning on any light during the walking, causing dozens of them to stumble because of the rugged road and the severity of darkness.
The majority of people who spoke to NSO said that most of those who suffer during this route are children and women, adding that some women who travel alone may be exploited and harassed by some "Dallil". One of them (the women) is asked to accompany him on the pretext of exploring the road between the trees, to come back in a while to the gathering place.
* "Dallil" confirm to NSO some abuses on the road and justify some of them with time constraint
NSO reporter met some of the people who work as guiders to talk more about the details of the smuggling process and the risks and difficulties involved. The first guider-Dallil, "Abu Yazan", said the road they are going through is long and hard, and the number of passengers is very large, making them more difficult to be controlled.
Abu Yazan added, they cannot stop on the road for any reason because if they stopped, taking every traveler in consideration, the road will take longer. If they do not cross the border before dawn, the Turkish border guards-Jandarma will find out and arrest or shoot at them, which could lead to the death of some of them.
For his part, said "Abu Fasih", another Dallil, he came from Aleppo eastern countryside, for the purpose of entering Turkey, and after trying about 30 times without success, became known all the roads, joined a group engaged in smuggling and began to work with them, adding that the master of these operations is one person, but he has never appeared for a long time, refusing to be named.
When asked about the existence of harmful practices against travellers, Abu Fasih said, they do not do this. They tell everyone about the roughness of the road and its difficulty before starting. They also warn the sick and the elderly about this, adding that those who insist on crossing take responsibility for themselves.
As for the exploitation or harassment of girls, the guiders whom we met denied it, saying that if it happened, it would be the behavior of only a few "guiders" and refused to talk more about it.
* Travellers are used as baits for gendarmes and smugglers are killed when they are known
After a long and exhausting trip that sometimes lasts more than 12 hours, travellers finally arrive at the Turkish border with the guider, to begin another and more dangerous phase of the smuggling trip.
All the young people we met agreed that the plan followed by the guiders depends first on anesthetizing of young children to prevent them from crying by giving them drugs, which did not suit their age in many cases. Where the deaths of three children in the vicinity of Darkush district in Idlib countryside were documented because they were given an overdose of sleeping pills.
The young men added that the guiders divide the travellers into two groups, one of which passes in front of the Turkish gendarmerie as a bait to distract them until the second group passes with the guider. Ibrahim from Aleppo countryside says that members of the group can be severely beaten by border guards to expose the smuggler.
Ibrahim says that if the gendarmes discover the smuggler, they often kill him, but the travellers do not dare inform them about him because whoever talks will be killed once he is returned to Idlib. He said he had to endure beatings several times by gendarmes, who they sometimes use gun pikes to hit them, while Abdullah Mahmoud said he was a witness of gendarmes cutting four fingers of a smuggler.
The smugglers themselves talk about what the gendarmes can do if they are caught. The smuggler Abu Zain says that the gendarmes captured one of his colleagues, Aboud, from Ra's al-Ain, in Aleppo southern countryside, they killed him and dumped his body in al-A'asy River in front of everyone. adding that the elements of the "gendarme" also killed another smuggler near the area of Bab al-Hawa crossing, which is from the Jikara area in Idlib countryside, denying at the same time, that the smugglers had killed those who reported about them, pointing out that they do not return to him the amount paid previously and may force him to pay additional amounts also.
Abu Zain added that he witnessed the death of another guider, by the border guards when he ran to escape after they asked people to stop moving, which led them to shoot him and hit him with a bullet in the head led to his killing.
The smuggler Abu Fasih said that the border guards apparently had orders to kill the smugglers directly, where the incidents became more before last year, saying that one of the smugglers killed a Turkish soldier after the gendarme fired at the travelers and killed six of them, to clash with the smuggler and shoot him which led to his killing with two civilians.
* Gendarmes kill and humiliate civilians, and no one documenting at the borders
Border guards firing at people trying to enter Turkish territory is described as random, while some say they shoot directly at civilians with the aim of killing them. Wael from Idlib countryside says he witnessed the killing of two civilians by gendarmes.
Wael talked about the incident, saying that they tried to cross the Turkish border at the beginning of 2017, but they did not succeed, and as they were returning towards Darkush area, the soldiers opened fire on them, killing a baby girl about two months old, adding that he cannot forget the image of this girl.
As for the smuggler Abu Zein, he witnessed the killing of a woman and her daughter by gendarmes near the border wall while randomly shooting at people and killing more than seven others in a similar shooting attack.
For his part, the "guider" Abu Hamza said that the elements of the "Gendarme" sniped a woman on Durriya road in the area of Darkush at the beginning of February of 2018, and a month earlier also killed two civilians, Abu Hamza explained that the killings of civilians trying to cross the border towards the Turkish territory from Idlib countryside, often shot by the elements of the Turkish police station, Qarbayas, overlooking Darkush, Salhab, and al-Durria.
In addition to the killings by the Turkish border guards, there are many cases of beating, stabbing and cracking on those who have been arrested, where our reporter met with people who were stabbed and beaten with hard instruments on the head, not to mention beatings with hands, witnesses indicate that killings and abuse cases done by gendarmerie are too many, but there are no accurate statistics on the victims' number, because these cases cannot be documented during the smuggling operation at the border.
More than one person pointed out that the Turkish border guards deliberately insult and humiliate travelers in different ways. Sultan al-Muhammad says he saw the gendarmes trying to force women to take off their underwear to be worn by men, adding that the officer in charge intervened and prevented them from doing so.
An image of men wearing women's underwear at the border was posted earlier on social media websites, where Ibrahim said he was there when the photo was taken, adding that the gendarmes had arrested them while trying to enter Turkey and forced a number of men to wear the clothes, denying this time, that gendarmes had forced women to take them off, adding that the underwear had been there previously, and the men were forced to wear them.
* Hayyet Tahrir al-Sham takes a share of smuggling profits under the pretext of organizing the operation
According to what most of the people we met, whether from people who tried to cross frequently, or from some smuggling workers, said that, contrary to what some think about the large number of smugglers who can be seen in the streets, squares, hotels and near the border, but these are just people whose job is to collect customers in return for a share of the profits, while the bulk of the amount goes to senior smugglers, after deducting other amounts for the Turkish smugglers and for some of the factions inside Syria, the most important is "Hayyet Tahrir al-ShamHTS”.
The smugglers cannot be civilians because the business is bigger than them, said Ahmad, 35, from Aleppo northern countryside who tried to enter Turkey more than once. He said most of the senior smugglers, one way or another, follow HTS, pointing out that some of the smugglers enjoy great prestige among HTS fighters, saying that when they were passing at a checkpoint or a patrol of the HTS the smuggler tells them that he belonged to a known person so they allow them to pass, refusing at the same time to mention the name of that person.
Ahmed added that the Hayyet Tahrir al-Sham HTS has created an office in Darkush town to organize the smuggling operations, under the pretext of ensuring the safety of the people, where the office receives from the smuggler $ 100 for each person who is smuggled, adding that most smugglers do not care about that office, and pay him nothing.
The smuggler Abu Zain said that the "Hayyet Tahrir al-Sham" has set up a checkpoint to control and regulate the smuggling operations, to take from the smuggler $ 100 for each person in return. However, most smugglers do not pay anything and taking far roads from the checkpoint which leads to lengthening the road about 5 hours.
Abu Zain said that it is no secret for anyone of the smugglers that most smugglers deal with the "HTS" or at least with some of its members, adding that "HTS" fined the smuggler who can arrest him up to $ 10 thousand dollars, but if he is known to them, they just fine him of 500 $.
Most of the residents and the travellers point out that smugglers are unable to complete their work in this way without dealing or collaborating with large military factions inside Syria or with persons of authority in these factions. However, most smugglers tried not to give many details about the factions' relationship with smuggling gangs, in addition to refusing to mention the names of persons associated with these operations.
In addition to what the people face by killing by the gendarmerie, a group of travellers were shot by the "Hayyet Tahrir al-Sham" killing a number of people which our witness did not specify the number because they were so crowded and they were so many, adding that he didn't know what made the "HTS" fighters to shoot in this way.
With intensifying the military campaigns launched by the regime forces on the province of Idlib and the increasing number of displaced from other areas towards north Syria, the number of those who are willing or forced to enter Turkish territory to escape the shelling and war, or in search for better opportunities to work, without any alternative for smuggling gangs, and without any signs of initiative to control these operations or facilitate the entering of civilians, whether from within Syria or from the Turkish government.
Worth to mention that we tried to have a number for civilians killed on borders between Syria and Turkey but we couldn’t have any specific number.
Scar on a young man’s body by Turkish border guards’ knife when he was trying to cross to Turkey in July 2017
Refugees waiting in Darkus mountains near Turkish borders which is the point where refugees gathered before heading to the borders-September 2017
Refugees crossing borders toward Turkey
A young man waiting for border guards to clear the road with other refugees after he was beaten by them and forced to go back to Syria