Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: Migration is the topic of almost every conversation in the cafés of Baghdad and Damascus – in towns large and small across Syria and Iraq and beyond – along with the pros and cons of social aid given to migrants in different countries. The best routes are common knowledge, and information on new developments and up-to-date advice spreads quickly on social media, via Viber, WhatsApp and Facebook. These days all you need to reach Europe are a couple of thousand dollars and a smartphone. It’s a significant change from the late 1990s, when – in Iraq at least – UN sanctions combined with the conditions of Saddam’s dictatorship meant it was barely possible to get by, existence depending on government handouts and meagre state salaries. Few had the money to reach Europe. Tens of thousands left Iraq but most languished in dull Amman in Jordan. Most people I knew wanted to leave, and most failed – for lack of funds, will or simple luck.
I was one of those who failed. I had finished my degree in architecture and was desperate to continue my studies in Vienna or Beirut, or at least to get a half-decent job in Amman or Dubai. I was a military deserter, so I had no hope of obtaining a passport: my only way out of Iraq was by procuring fake documents or finding a smuggler. I tried for three years. I spent nearly $3000 – then a fortune – on fees to smugglers. I was lied to, betrayed, and conned out of money I had borrowed. For nine months I lived with my bags packed, ready to go, and every night I made a call to the smuggler, who kept lying and saying that the next day was the day. Eventually, I gave up and unpacked my bags and waited another five years.
For decades, the paths that led out of war, destruction and poverty into the safety of life in Europe was a closely guarded secret, the property of smugglers and mafias who controlled the routes and had a monopoly on the necessary knowledge. They conducted their illicit trade out of dingy cafés in the back streets of Aksaray in Istanbul and – for the lucky few who reached Greece – the district of Omonia in Athens, where those who had got that far were handed on from one network to another, to be lied to and manipulated again. After all, they had no choice but to hand over their cash in exchange for a promise and a hope.
This year everything changed. [Continue reading…]