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Small Time Smuggler Helps Migrants Reach Greece On The Cheap


We've heard from some of the people who have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea - people fleeing war and poverty for Europe. Today we're going to hear from one of the human smugglers. For every boat full of migrants, there is someone who has been paid to arrange the trip. More people arrived in Greece by sea just last month than in the entire previous year. That's according to the U.N.'s Refugee Agency. NPR's Ari Shapiro brings us this report from the coast of Turkey.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I spotted Noman haggling with some Iraqi travelers in Bodrum, Turkey. We were at the bus station. That's the central gathering point for people who want to make the journey to Greece. Noman would not give me his last name. We have no independent proof that he's a smuggler. He told me he's a small fish in this sea. He was living in Istanbul and saw a business opportunity here on the coast.

NOMAN: I am not a big. I have a very little working. There is a very big, big person, but I am not a Mafia.

SHAPIRO: Everyone says the smuggling rings here are organized by the Turkish Mafia. Noman says he operates on the fringes. If people can't afford the big-time smugglers, he'll get them to Greece on the cheap.

Is it safe?

NOMAN: No safe, but there is problem in Pakistan, Syria. There is die, and there is the die.

SHAPIRO: He's saying you could die from war in your home country, or you could die at sea with the chance of reaching some place better.

Yes, but there are boats for four people that have 10 people in them.

NOMAN: I know, but they don't have money for big boat, understand? If he give a lot of money, then I purchase big boat. Big boat is very expensive.

SHAPIRO: I leave him and go to scout a spot that I've been told is the departure point for these rafts full of people heading to Greece. If you look at a map, this is an obvious place for the launches. It's the shortest distance between Turkey and Greece. The island of Kos is less than three miles away. The beach is straight out of a travel brochure - sparkling clear water, kids playing in the sand. For the last two summers, Durmus Ozdemir has worked at the beach cafe here.

DURMUS OZDEMIR: Last summer in the same date, we didn't see any Syrian people. We open here at the middle of May, and we are seeing them every time, every day.

SHAPIRO: He says he helps them when he can.

OZDEMIR: Give them some food, some water, but they don't ask for other things.

SHAPIRO: OK, now imagine time lapse photography. The sun sinks low in the sky and dips behind the hills as a slim crescent moon rises out of the sea. It's midnight now. The sky is splattered with stars that reach down to meet the glittering lights of Kos on the horizon.

A police boat just went zooming across the water with its blue and red light flashing. Then it slowed down, turned on a spotlight, and suddenly, I see a small raft. It's far enough out that I can't tell how many people are on it, but the police are pulling up right alongside it. Looks like these people are not going to make it to Greece tonight.

Then I spot something else. It's a moving shadow on the water, slipping past the police spotlight. The second raft disappears into the darkness, headed towards the Greek island of Kos. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Bodrum, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.