A Human Trafficker You May Actually Like

Nov 17, 2014 at 2:23 PM ET

At an outdoor café in Istanbul’s Aksaray neighborhood, five Syrian refugees plotting their escape to Europe sit under the halogen glow of streetlights. They’re huddled around a smuggler named Messi, who’s halfway through a monologue about how he’s a lot like Jesus. He has soft features and a freshly shaved, round face, and he seems to possess a complete, undisturbed inner calm—except when he’s discussing his work.

Then everything about him sharpens. “It is not about money,” he says, defending an earlier statement he made about being a smuggler for the money. No, he’s in the business because he’s something akin to a deity. “Jesus, he tried to find a way to let his people live in peace,” Messi notes. “I am like him. I send refugees to a place of peace.”

At that, a 40-year-old refugee from Damascus who goes by “Ahmad” leans over and says, “95 percent of smugglers are liars.” Before he met with Messi tonight, Ahmad claims a smuggler abandoned him in Syria and authorities prevented him from crossing the Mediterranean in a vessel more crowded and dangerous than the smugglers had promised. Bulgarian border agents beat him, he says, and sent him back to Turkey.

He fans through a notebook filled front to back with names and numbers, all of them smugglers he doesn’t trust. But he insists that Messi is different. In this shadow world with criminal and mafia ties, Messi has developed a rare reputation for consistently delivering refugees to Europe rather than running off with their money, according to this group of refugees, who had all been recommended to Messi by friends or family he worked with before. Despite his reputation as an an honest broker, he can’t guarantee that his customers will successfully make it to Europe after the long and complex journey.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, over half of the country’s population has been displaced. Three million have fled to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. For those who make it as far as Istanbul with hopes of asylum and a new life in the European Union, the cafés of Aksaray are where they land. According to Messi, the police willingly aid the trade by tipping off smuggling bosses and café owners before conducting any raids, letting the business thrive.

Multiple smugglers work each of the cafés, which are spread throughout Aksaray. The establishments mostly look the same, with electric LED-lit signs spilling into the outdoor seating areas, plastic chairs and tables placed above white gravel walkways, and endless rounds of tea. Iraqis who arrived after the 2003 invasion operate from some of the cafés, Kurds work others, and Syrians are the relative newcomers; most of them began their people-smuggling careers shortly after the revolution kicked off.

“Aksaray is famous,” says one of the refugees. “Just ask two or three people where to find a smuggler here and one will know.”

Messi says the average price for the services he provides is 10,000 euros ($12,457). But for exclusive destinations, like the U.K. and the U.S., it’s double that figure. (Messi has never sent anyone to the U.S., but claims he can.) He lays out how his service works: When you agree on a price, your money is held at “The Office,” a discreet way of saying the Turkish mafia, which takes a cut. You get official documents and a passport.

Smugglers acquire passports however they can—paying people with access to real passports to send them blank ones, stealing them, making forgeries or buying them from anyone willing to sell. (At one point, Messi asks to purchase mine and then offers me a job transporting passports from Europe to Istanbul for 4,000 euros per month, or $4,981.) If there isn’t a stolen or purchased passport with a photo that resembles you, they’ll try to make you look like one that’s close. They’ll cut your hair and dress you up, then send you to the airport with a backstory and all the paperwork and tickets you need.

Going overland is trickier. It requires a series of clandestine border crossings with a shifting cast of mafia-linked smugglers in each new country, he says. The journey begins in a crammed minivan in Aksaray, then switches to a dash on foot over the border to Bulgaria, where lookouts monitor the crossing. “We always cross borders at night,” says Messi. Depending on the border, it might be two or three days of walking. “You might have to cross rivers. Maybe you have to climb mountains. You have to go far from the checkpoints.”

Messi, who’s now 30, started out much like the refugees with us tonight—a Syrian fleeing his war-torn country with a plan to reach Europe. But after seeing how much money smugglers charged refugees, he decided to become one himself instead. First he was a middleman, funneling customers to more established smugglers. Then he started hiking Syrians across the various European borders.

Now, close to three years into the business, he negotiates the details from the luxury of the café, his makeshift office, pocketing about 5,000 euros ($6,231) for every refugee he gets across a border after expenses—including bribes, passports and the cuts that go to the mafia and smuggling bosses. Some months are slower than others, but as he says: “You will never see me here alone. I am always with people who want to be smuggled.”

For an overwhelming majority of refugees, services such as Messi’s are a pipe dream. The refugees tonight say they’ve sold everything they own—cars, homes if they haven’t been bombed, businesses if they’re still functioning—and emptied their savings to pay for the trip. One refugee recently offered Messi his home in Syria in exchange for a passport and a flight, Messi says. Europe is where they want to reach, but even with smugglers like Messi, it’s unlikely.

Turkey accepted more Syrian refugees in just three days this month from Kobani, where ISIS has launched a furious offensive, than the E.U. has in three years. Human Rights Watch recently reported that Bulgarian border agents are increasingly beating Syrian refugees and denying them entry. As the E.U. spends billions fortifying its borders, thousands of refugees—3,000 just this year—die in the Mediterranean trying to reach its shores on rickety, dangerous vessels. Fewer than 100,000 Syrian refugees have declared asylum in Europe.

“You see their faces?” asks Messi, referring to the refugees at our table, all of them looking anxious. “They are scared now. Maybe these guys will insult me when they leave. They’ll say: ‘This guy, he just cares about money.’ But when they arrive to Europe, they will call me and thank me and pray for me.” Feeling good about himself, he says, “I am something different. I am like Jesus I think. Inside I feel that.”