Despite migrant deaths, Iraqi Kurds still seek out smugglers

RANYA, Iraq — Shoes pile up outside the Mamand home in northern Iraq from relatives and friends who have streamed inside to offer solace as they anxiously await news of the family’s young son, who was lost at sea somewhere between France and Britain.

Zana Mamand, 33, wiped away tears and vowed to take revenge against the family of the smuggler who arranged for his brother’s journey. He said, “I know him. I know his family. I have their numbers.”

In Ranya, a town of about 400,000 in Iraq’s Kurdish-run region, the plight of the migrants seems to be a topic that everyone knows something about.

Those who want to get out ask local travel agents to connect them with smugglers in Turkey and elsewhere. People who are returning from unsuccessful attempts stay around the park and eagerly await their next chance. Officers at the station claim they cannot stop the smugglers.

About 28,000 Iraqis left for Europe in 2021, with about 7,000 from the Raparin district that includes Ranya and the nearby town of Qaladze, said Baker Ali, head of a local association of refugees returning from Europe.

Twana had tried and failed five times to cross the English Channel from Calais before he boarded a small boat on the evening of Nov. 23.

The routine was the same: Ahead of each attempted crossing, smugglers would select a travel office in Ranya where Zana would deposit money.

That night, Zana spoke to his brother by phone just before midnight. He wanted to know about the weather and what the other passengers were doing.

“The boat is not good,” he recalls that Twana replied, explaining it was too small, and there were 33 people waiting to cross — too many for the vessel.

They spoke again at 2: 05 a.m. on Nov. 24. Twana joked and laughed for four minutes, telling his brother that they’d be docking within an hour. Zana felt tired and asked Kala his sister who is in the U.K. to keep him online.

In his last message, Twana said the engine wasn’t working.

Twana was athletic and particularly adept at soccer. Zana proudly displayed photos showing him running down the pitch carrying the ball with a steely determination look on his face.

He didn’t care much for school, doubting it would ever land him a job. However, almost all of the members of his family had difficulty finding work. Zana was a firefighter and he rarely received his full wages. Sometimes, Twana would work as a laborer for 12 hours a day, earning 15,000 Iraqi dinars — about $10.

When he turned 18, Twana said nothing would stop him from going to Europe. The trip would be costly: $13,000 to cross from Turkey to Italy. Twana will need to cross the channel to Calais in France from there. Then, it would cost another $3,000 to cross the channel to the U.K.

With a Turkish visa, he traveled to Istanbul in September and found that there were plenty of smugglers from his home region, including Ranya and Qaladze.

Twana tried and failed three times to cross from Turkey to Italy, each with a different smuggler. Zana stated that the money was borrowed and put up for sale by their father. The agent then deposited it with them. Each time they failed to cross, he would pull it back.

When Twana finally reached Italy in late October, the travel agent sent the money, he said. Twana reached Calais using the same process.

FINDING ‘THE BEST SMUGGLERS’ FOR CLIENTS

Abdullah Omar’s office window offers a view of Ranya’s bustling center. Yaran Travel is located on the second floor above many tea shops.

Here, the 35 year-old travel agent summed up his business: “I help people find the best smugglers to take them to Europe.”

He has high standards, he said, working only with those who have helped people reach their destination with the fewest complaints. His relatives include a brother from Turkey.

He helped over 500 people this year, a number that has risen steadily, he said. Many want to travel to the U.K., where their relatives have sought asylum many years ago. Once they get a Turkey visa, smugglers will tell potential migrants that Omar must have a deposit.

From Turkey, most are smuggled to Italy via risky sea routes. Some others try to smuggle in Greece and Bulgaria.

Omar acts as an intermediary between the smugglers and the migrants and their relatives in Iraq, using the so-called hawala network in Muslim countries in which individuals rather than banks act as brokers for money transfers. Once all parties have given their approval, he releases the funds through hawala.

He sometimes sends funds directly to migrants who “run out of money and sleep in train stations in Italy, or become sick,” Omar said.

One smuggler from Iraq’s Qaladze area said he began sneaking people into Poland from Belarus in July. He said it was much easier than the other routes because Belarus had relaxed visa restrictions and he knew someone in Poland who would drive migrants to Germany.

When word reached Zana that his brother might have died, he went to the office of the agent with whom he left his deposit, and threatened him in a fit of rage. He was told by the agent how to get to “Bashdar Ranya”, a smuggler who uses a pseudonym.

Since Ranya is relatively small, Zana soon found the smuggler’s family. To report the authorities, he threatened to give information on the smuggler to Zana’s sister in the U.K.

Zana later was contacted by the elusive smuggler via Facebook’s messenger app, in which he said in a voice message that he was on the run in Germany.

Zana played the message for an AP reporter, the recording breaking the mournful silence in the Mamand household.

“I am sorry. “It was also a surprise for me,” the voice said about the sinking. “I will compensate you.”

Attempts by AP to reach the smuggler through a contact in France provided by Zana were unsuccessful.

Authorities can do little about the smugglers, said Hazhar Azawi, director of Kurdish security in Ranya. The smugglers have already arrived in Turkey. They (Iraqis) get a visa to go there, so what can we do?”

Lt. Shorsh Ismail, a spokesman for Ranya’s police, said authorities are aware of the travel agencies’ activities but can do nothing without an order from Kurdistan’s presidency.

Omar, the travel agent, said he does not believe he is doing anything wrong, insisting: “I am helping people.”

In the town’s nearby park, 24-year-old Alan Aziz recalled his own failed attempt to reach Italy. When the currents brought him to Libya, he was aboard a boat on the Mediterranean. There he spent almost a month before being returned to the United States.

“I need his help,” he said of seeing a travel agent. “I want to try again for Europe.”

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