The Smuggling Game

Playing with life and death to reach Europe

Millions of people fleeing conflict and poverty are gambling their futures and life savings with people smugglers – strangers who play with their lives in dangerous cat-and-mouse chases with border authorities known as “The Game”.

But who wins and who loses as rising numbers risk everything to reach safety?


No Turning Back

In the dead of night, as wild animals howled nearby, Syrian migrant Aras Mahmoud clung to his children as they slept on damp grass in the Bulgarian mountains en route to Serbia, praying that his family would live another day.

"In those mountains, you are not sure if something will eat you or attack you," said Mahmoud, 38, in Arabic through an interpreter at a migrant centre in the Serbian capital Belgrade.

"My two children got very scared. They used to tell me, 'No father, we don't want to go with smugglers, we don't want to go to the forest.' We suffered in the mountains."

Aras Mahmoud, his wife, mother and children in their bedroom in a refugee centre in Krnjaca, Belgrade. 

Aras Mahmoud, his wife, mother and children in their bedroom in a refugee centre in Krnjaca, Belgrade. 

Scared and helpless, in those dark moments Mahmoud said he wrestled with his decision four years ago to gamble everything - his money and the lives of his wife and children - to pay nameless strangers to smuggle them to safety, becoming another pawn in the global people trade widely known as "The Game".

"If you go, you succeed. If you don't go, you lose. That's why they call it a game," said 20-year-old Afghan migrant Ahmad Shakib who made it to Serbia from Bulgaria after three 'games'.

Ahmad Shakib sitting outside a large, abandoned warehouse near the main railway station in Serbia's capital Belgrade. 

Ahmad Shakib sitting outside a large, abandoned warehouse near the main railway station in Serbia's capital Belgrade. 

Ali, a 16-year-old Afghan boy who travelled alone to Serbia in southeast Europe and declined to reveal his real name, said he failed several times to cross the border towards western Europe.

"The smuggler put me through seven games, but it didn't work, I couldn't cross," he said.

"God willing, the way will become open and I will succeed in any games that the smugglers make."

Migrants warm themselves around a fire in the abandoned warehouse where Ali lives. 

Migrants warm themselves around a fire in the abandoned warehouse where Ali lives. 

Over the past two years, around 1.5 million migrants have fled fighting and poverty across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, many entrusting their lives to people smugglers who charged exorbitant prices to help them reach Europe.

This has created a global business as profitable and sophisticated as drug trafficking, according to authorities who are struggling to stop the teaming up of migrants and smugglers.

For those with no legal migration route, it's proved to be a risky game of life and death with a record 7,495 migrants dying worldwide in 2016 in their quest for a new life and thousands of others stranded en route to their dream destination.

Having paid 58,000 euros ($62,000) - 16 times the annual average salary in Syria - Mahmoud and his family of eight have been stranded in Serbia for the past six months, penniless after their smuggler took their life savings and disappeared.

WATCH: How Aras Mahmoud and his family got to Serbia.

"The money is gone, the smuggler took it. Everything my father and I made over 38 years, we spent it in six months," said Mahmoud in a small room he shares with his children, wife, siblings and mother at the state-run migrant centre in Belgrade.

But there is no turning back now, he said.

"We left Syria with its rockets, bombs, planes, killing and no security. The children were terrified. We were forced to leave the country, it was not our choice," said Mahmoud who had hoped to get to Germany to join an older brother.

"I will never find a place more beautiful than my country. But Syria is gone, there is no more Syria."

Winners and Losers

People smuggler Sarwar Jet is proud that he has helped migrants flee conflicts - and especially proud of earning a reputation for being quick and efficient.

"My work is fast. That is why my passengers and other smugglers call me 'Sarwar Jet'. My work is like the speed of a jet," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Afghanistan's capital Kabul.

"I make two to three attempts to cross the border in one month. All of them cross ... Smuggling in itself is a game. If the passengers cross the borders, we win the game," said the 30-year-old, who has smuggled migrants from Afghanistan to Iran via Pakistan in the past seven years.

WATCH: The smuggler's story.

Europol, Europe's police agency, said people-smuggling generated up to $6 billion in 2015, but profits dropped by about a third in 2016 after a European Union (EU) deal with Turkey last March largely stemmed the migration flow.

Most of the money for passage is raised and transferred by migrants' relatives around the world.

The smuggling rings exploit consumers thousands of miles apart – migrants seeking freedom or opportunity and their families back home and in the West, who are willing to pay to ensure their loved ones make it.

"Little by little, different countries started to build fences and introduce stricter regulations so smuggling flourished," said Cecilia Manzotti, a migrant smuggling and trafficking researcher at the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Jet said he made up to $300 per migrant, dodging border guards to drive illegally into Iran, before handing them over to smugglers in Turkey to continue their westward journey.

But with borders shut, Jet gave up the lucrative business four months ago to sell cars in Kabul.

If borders reopen, he said he would happily go back to doing what he does best.

"Once someone becomes famous in a business, people won't leave him alone," said Jet, adding that he had no regrets as a smuggler because he helped his customers to safety.

"We would put our lives at risk for our passengers and take them to their destination. It's true that we took money off them. But if we didn't help these passengers, maybe one day, they'll get killed in a suicide attack in the country."

Game On

It's a deadly reality 28-year-old Jamshid Shadab knows too well.

When Taliban militants discovered he worked as an translator for the U.S. army, he was faced with two choices: leave Afghanistan or suffer the same fate as his colleagues.

"In one of the highways from Kabul to Kunduz, (the Taliban) was searching for everybody who was working for the Afghan or American army. They were taking them to one of the mountains and shooting them," said Shadab.

It's been a gamble since Shadab paid agents 4,000 euros ($4,300) to smuggle him out of Afghanistan last July, leaving behind his elderly father, wife and two children.

But it's a game Shadab said he's forced to play, no matter the cost, with his life on the line when he was held ransom in Bulgaria by smugglers until his father sent more money.

"They call your family (and say), 'These guys are in trouble if you don't pay the money. I might break their legs or hands,'" he said outside warehouses near the main train station in Belgrade, where he has been staying for three months.

UNODC's Manzotti said the abuse and exploitation migrants endure along the journey remains under-reported since they have no-one to turn to and smugglers know they can get away with it.

"We talk a lot about people who die at sea, but actually the risks and the abuses that migrants and refugees face along the smuggling journey are much more," she said.

An arrangement that began as smuggling can spiral into extortion, kidnapping and even forced marriage - all forms of trafficking with victims deceived and exploited, Manzotti said.

"Our relationship (with smugglers) is financial. They will care for us in order to get the money. But for those who do not pay, it's a disaster," said Syrian migrant Otra al-Khadra, 58, who has been living with her two sons in the same refugee centre as Mahmoud in Belgrade for nearly six months.

A child outside the refugee centre where both Otra al-Khadra and Aras Mahmoud live in Belgrade.

A family looks out the window of their bedroom in the refugee centre where both Otra al-Khadra and Aras Mahmoud live in Belgrade.

Serbia, which is not part of the EU, was a focal point for migrants in 2015 when hundreds of thousands of migrants travelled through the Balkans to reach western Europe.

Although that route was closed off last March, Serbian authorities estimate a further 110,000 migrants have passed through the country, many using smugglers to cross Serbia and its barbed-wire border with Hungary.

There are around 7,800 migrants in Serbia, the U.N.'s refugee agency UNHCR reports, with some 6,700 people housed in government-run centres, mostly families, women and children.

Other migrants, like Shadab, live in empty warehouses in Belgrade's city centre, preferring to sleep rough so they can contact smugglers more easily and leave at a moment's notice.

Migrants who have money left wait anxiously for calls and social media messages from smugglers ready for the next 'cat-and-mouse game' with border guards.

"It's very easy to find a smuggler. Everyone here would know more than 10," said Shadab who was deported twice to Serbia from Croatia.

"We're stuck because the borders are closed. Every day (the smuggler) tells us, 'The next day, tomorrow we're leaving.' But the next day never comes."

Money Trail

Europol's European Migrant Smuggling Centre has struggled to crackdown on the booming trade in the face of the largest migrant crisis since World War Two, the explosion of social media use, and the sprawling network of elusive money exchanges between relatives and smugglers.

"The biggest challenges, not just for us but also law enforcement in Europe, are the size of the criminal demands and the number of the people trying to reach destination countries," said the centre's chief, Robert Crepinko, in a phone interview.

Formed last year, Crepinko said the centre helps police forces inside and outside Europe share intelligence and helps with rapid deployment of emergency police forces as new migrant routes emerge.

The group said it identified about 17,460 new suspected smugglers in 2016 alone.

It also found more than 2,500 fake travel documents and 1,150 social media accounts used for migrant smuggling.

But following the money trail is near impossible, even for Europol, which can't pinpoint where all the money goes.

"This is the one million euro question," said Crepinko. "Of course, some of this money stays in Europe, but a lot of it leaves Europe."

“I paid the smuggler step-by-step. I left the money with a person I trusted. I told him that whenever I arrived in a certain location, he should pay the money up until that destination." Wasif Sher, 18, a Pakistani migrant who lives in an empty warehouse in Belgrade.

“I paid the smuggler step-by-step. I left the money with a person I trusted. I told him that whenever I arrived in a certain location, he should pay the money up until that destination." Wasif Sher, 18, a Pakistani migrant who lives in an empty warehouse in Belgrade.

Migrants tend to pay smugglers in cash, often under a "pay as you go system", and via money transfer services like the hawala network, where a local agent, usually in the migrant's country of origin, collects money from friends or relatives and, when told, transfers the funds to another agent.

Covering Tracks

Europol's Crepinko said no matter how impenetrable borders seem at first, smugglers will always find a way to cross.

"The smugglers are trying to exploit the vulnerabilities and weak spots in the border management systems," he said.

"Smugglers are very innovative and they are adjusting their criminal activities very quickly to new obstacles in their way."

Through social media platforms like Facebook, or encrypted mobile apps such as WhatsApp, Imo and Viber, smugglers can easily bypass police detection and communicate freely with migrants or their relatives to negotiate payments and logistics.

"I myself might have used more than 100 mobile phone SIM cards," said Afghan smuggler Jet.

"I might have more than 40 to 50 Facebook accounts. I activated them as needed, and when my passengers arrived at their destination, I deactivated them. And I would throw away the SIM card."

Smugglers also use Facebook to advertise their services, including the cost, type of transport, success rate, and, in some cases, information on asylum policies or family reunification processes across the EU, says the International Centre for Migration Policy Development.

Maegan Hendow, a researcher at the Austria-based institute, said many smugglers rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from migrants who have successfully reached their destination.

In some ways, migrants can hold smugglers to account by 'rating' them through social media, she said.

But it's still a losing game for those like Syrian migrants
al-Khadra and Mahmoud, who send thousands of dollars into the abyss and are never certain the stranger on the other side will deliver.

"I reached this point with no more money and there is nothing I can do. I can't file a complaint against a smuggler nor fight with one. They are like a mafia, and I am one person, so I can't do anything. What's done is done," Mahmoud said.

In Limbo

As the EU continues to tighten its borders, migrants grow more desperate daily, Hendow said, with some risking prosecution to work as guides on behalf of smugglers in exchange for cash or a discount on their smuggling journey.

Lone migrant children the Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed stranded in Belgrade said some boys were so destitute they had to sell sex for money.

In March, the EU's chief migration official said member states should be ready to detain more migrants who have no case for asylum to prevent them from fleeing before deportation.

But Hendow said such "stop gap" policies will fail to curb migration flows to Europe in the long-term.

"Looking at just one piece of the puzzle is not going to stop it. You have to deal with it holistically, because closing borders is clearly not working," Hendow said.

She said such short-term measures have serious consequences for migrants who fear deportation and have no certainty for their future, despite risking everything.

WATCH: Otra al-Khadra on how she feels living in limbo.

"It's like carving a rock to reach safety. I am devastated, devastated," said Syrian migrant al-Khadra, whose family has been living in limbo in Belgrade for the past six months.

"There are families that can afford to continue with smugglers. We are broke."

For Mahmoud, just the chance to offer his children a peaceful life was worth all the money in the world, he said.

"My only concern is to take my children to safety in a country that grants me asylum. If God wants this for me and my children, then it will happen," he said.


Reporting Lin Taylor and Valeria Cardi
Additional reporting Zabihullah Noori
Words Lin Taylor
Video Valeria Cardi
Photography Marko Djurica
Multimedia Valeria Cardi
Text editing Belinda Goldsmith
Multimedia editing Liz Mermin