Jane Corbin | BBC Panorama
A human smuggler living in Turkey said Britain’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda would not deter its customers. Jane Corbin from the BBC’s Panorama program met with the human smuggler in Istanbul, where she manages her business.
It’s getting dark as you ascend the creaking stairs of a safe house located among an unnamed street in Istanbul.
I’m here to meet with one of the bosses of the human trafficking trade. It took me months to arrange to meet with a trusted agent. The culmination of BBC Panorama’s investigation into how thousands of migrants reached the south coast of England and applied for asylum.
The human smuggler is from the Middle East. Young and soft voice. Stylish, dressed in black. He’s agreed to tell us about his work if we don’t reveal his identity. His bodyguards are secretly keeping watch outside the house.
I tell him human trafficking is illegal. “I know it’s not legal,” he says, “but I’m doing it in the name of humanity. It’s more valuable than the law. We help people, we treat them well, we respect women. We don’t disrespect or hurt anyone.”
About 2,000 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean last year.
The UK government signed a £120m agreement with the Rwandan government in April to send some refugees, mostly single men, to Africa at the time their asylum applications were being considered.
The government has said the aim is to foil the methods of human smugglers and stop record numbers of people making the dangerous Channel crossing.
More than 30,000 people have crossed the English Channel so far this year, and this number is reported to have crossed last year as well.
Human smugglers send hundreds of asylum seekers to the UK. The human smuggler admits that their business is very profitable and says he manages it like a business person.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a whole family or an individual. Each person pays the same price,” he says. “A trip to England totals $17,000.”
So how does it justify making people take dangerous sea voyages in flimsy inflatable boats?
“Accidents can happen. We try to scare people and discourage them,” he claims.
He says to them, “This road is dangerous and not worth it. You could die. I told his parents about it too.”
Meanwhile, it shows us a form. A risk-acknowledged waiver that he has his clients sign.
Istanbul is a gateway between Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe and this trade is growing here.
There is competition in marketing. Human smugglers give different prices on social media depending on the destination.
There are fake passports and British driver’s licenses for sale. Even sample questions asked by the UK Home Office during the investigation into the asylum application.
People smugglers collect them from safe houses in the big city, which is home to about five million refugees. They are stuffed into small rooms, where they can stay for months until the passage is arranged. His gang buys and delivers food and water from supermarkets to refugees.
“We put it in a house and wait for everything to be arranged. When we’re ready, we pick up their phone so the cops can’t find us,” explains the smuggler.
Then they are picked up from Istanbul in a minibus and taken to the mountains. In groups of six or ten, they march to the Aegean, one of the smugglers’ boats.
Their destination is either Greece or Italy.
The human smuggler denies this, but there are allegations that a migrant died in one of his boats.
He shows us some videos. Dozens of young men crowded into a boat waving, shouting and thanking the smuggler. These are not just references, but proof that they have made the transition.
The money they pay for the trip stays with an intermediary and is not given to the smuggler until the families are safe. The human smuggler even provides a luxury VIP service for customers who can pay more.
The refugees then reach Europe, the coast of northern France. For some, the ultimate goal is to cross the English Channel and reach England. There’s a criminal network on the 100km coastline around Calais. This network works like an agency helping the clients of human traffickers in Turkey to overcome the last hurdle.
“We buy a small inflatable boat. It costs between $10 and $20,000. One of the customers gets a free ride in exchange for handling the boat. They just go straight and surrender to the police on arrival,” says the smuggler.
Now he wants to go, his guards are afraid they will be noticed.
Last time I saw the human smuggler in Istanbul, he was buying a new boat. His business, let alone falling apart, is still doing very well. A record number of people still cross the English Channel. The UK government is in court to prove the Rwandan plan is safe and legal. A decision is expected next month.
“Will the UK government strategy make a difference?” I ask the smuggler.
“Even if they send 1,000 people a day to Rwanda, people won’t stop or change their minds,” he says.
“If they are not afraid of death, they will not be afraid to go to Rwanda”