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He tricks refugees to the death boats

People smuggler Abo Omar.

MERSIN, TURKEY. People smuggler Abo Omar says that he can take me and my family to safety in Sweden.

But it will cost us nearly 900,000 Swedish kronor.

He doesn't know that I'm a reporter at Expressen.

Or that I'm filming it all with a hidden camera.

“I'm the mafia here,” he says calmly and lights his cigarette.

My mobile phone rings. I don't recognise the number from my previous conversations with Abo Omar.

“Is that you in the black jacket? Are you sitting under the parasol?” he asks.

I look around, not noticing anything special. I wonder how he can see me.

It's a sunny winter's day. It's after 2 pm, which was the time we had agreed to meet. There are few guests at the al fresco eateries here in the popular upper-class Marina district in the Turkish port of Mersin. The voice on the phone tells me to stand up. So I do. I still can't see him.

He asks me questions to check my identity. He sounds worried, and I understand why. He's probably afraid of all the people who want to claim back the money that he has tricked them out of. Or who want revenge.

According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, more than 3,400 boat refugees died in 2014 alone.

I stand up and wait. My friend in the black jacket, who has accompanied me to the meeting, remains seated under a parasol.

He's with me for extra security. I don't know what will happen.

On the phone I told the man named Abo Omar that I'm a Syrian refugee and want to flee to Sweden.

Now I have to make him believe that my friend and I are cousins and that we're in Turkey to find out if we and our families can escape by boat to Europe. First to Italy and then on to Sweden.

Abo Omar is one of the top men among people smugglers in Turkey. Few people have seen him. No one has previously managed to take a photo of him; I hope that the hidden camera I'm wearing is still working.

He does his dealings by phone. He normally sends his underlings to meet refugees, but Iíve demanded to meet him in person. And tempted him with the opportunity to earn a lot of money; I told him I have a big family.

“Is that you standing there? I can see you,” repeats Abo Omar on the phone.

A man in his forties, dressed in a grey tracksuit, comes out of the back door of the café.

Abo Omar gives me a hug and, in keeping with tradition, we kiss each other on both cheeks.

When I call him Abo Omar he asks me to stop doing that. He says that he now goes by the name of Abo Ahmed.

He doesn't know that I know his real name is Ali Omar Harmoush, and that he comes from the Syrian port of Latakia.

“Listen, brother, I've sent at least 5,000 refugees to Europe. I have customers every day. I take care of my reputation. There are many amateurs who trick people here ñ they may tell you that it costs 4,000 dollars, but they're just bluffing,” he says.

We want to know how people smuggling works. I tell him my fabricated story, saying I have an extended family of 23 people, including six children and a few women, who have fled from Syria to Lebanon and now I want to take them to Turkey to seek safety in Europe and Sweden. I also tell him that there are seven others in Syria, two of whom are wanted by the police, who need help to be smuggled out of Syria to Mersin.

“Bring them here as quickly as you can. Preferably tomorrow. If you'd brought them with you now, you could have all travelled to Italy today. Make sure that those who are in Lebanon come here tomorrow or the day after. I can also help you with those who want to flee from Syria. The five who are not wanted by the police should take the bus from Damascus to Latakia, and the two who are should take a car. I'll make sure that they contact someone who works in the port. It's one of us. You pay him a small sum, 500, 1,000 or 2,000 Syrian pounds, each buy a boat ticket costing 200 dollars and board the boat,” says Abo Omar.

I pretend to accept the terms.

OK. When will they depart?

“On the first, second or third day. I might send them as soon as after two or three days.”

We're talking about my own family. I want them to be in a safe place.

He suddenly interrupts me, and asks in a suspicious voice,

“Sorry, but...”

We're talking about six young children among them...

“...do I know you? How did you hear about me?”

Via people who travelled to Norway.

“On my sister's honour, I've sent 5,000 people so far. Iím being honest with you. Perhaps on the first day. As they say, it's all about being lucky. If they open a safe route for me, I work. They're going to open the route for me today, for example.”

Today? If they'd been here today, they'd have...

“They'd have set off. I told you to bring them here.”

He lights his second cigarette. He relaxes again.

He says that he usually lives in the Turkish part of Cyprus. Before the war in Syria he smuggled cigarettes from Romania and Bulgaria, a business that has substantially expanded.

“I'm wanted by the regime in Syria. They want me dead or alive. I didn't have anything to do with the uprising really. I was just an arms dealer,” says Abo Omar.

For the past four years he has been earning a lot of money smuggling people in substandard, extremely dangerous boats.

He now verbally paints a picture of a fine, stable 85-metre vessel that can carry 1,500 passengers. I ask whether I can go and see it and I explain that, after all, I'm placing the lives of my entire family in his hands.

“No, unfortunately I can't show you the boat. It's not here in Mersin,” he says.

He promises that he feels great responsibility for my family.

“The women will have separate accommodation from the men,” he promises.

He says that he takes care to follow traditional customs and etiquette. We don't need to take food, water or medication with us. There will be a doctor and a mechanic on the boat. There's even a satellite phone, and each person will receive their own life vest. The journey to Italy will take five days. Non-stop.

He repeats the promises that he has made to many other refugees.

He doesn't know that some of them, who are currently in prison in Alexandria after having been thrown into the sea off the Egyptian coast, have already told me everything.

He sent them off in an old wreck of a boat that ran aground outside Alexandria. The armed crew threw children and women off the boat and forced the men to jump overboard after them.

At least 200 refugees were left to their fate on a small Egyptian island outside Alexandria. Now theyíve been imprisoned and are waiting to be sent back to war-torn Syria or are waiting for a miracle to save them and send them to Europe.

I ask how I can be sure that we really will get to Italy.

We've seen how people die in the sea off the Libyan coast.

“No, no. It's the Egyptians who do that. We have lovely boats. My boat cost 1.5 million dollars. Do you know me? No, you don't. Do you think that I'd destroy my reputation by sending you and your family in a wreck? I've been in business for several years. It's my reputation and my business we're talking about,” says Abo Omar.

I ask him whether my family will travel in the same safe boat even if the journey doesn't take place for another month or so.

“No. We're dumping it there in Italy,” he says.

How will you get rid of it?

“The Red Cross will take it.”

OK, we want to get to Sweden.

“You'll travel to Italy and there, you'll phone someone.”

How can he help us?

“He'll take you from Italy to Sweden.”

Is that guaranteed?

“100 per cent. It's not dangerous there. That man is one of us.”

When I ask him whether he can lower the price he emphasises that it costs 5,500 dollars. And then extra for transport from Italy to Sweden.

“From Italy to Sweden itís only 800 euros.”

OK, it's only that much. Will we travel by road or by air?

“By road.”

Is it safe? Will we get to Sweden?

“You'll travel as a group.”

Have other people travelled to Sweden?

“All of them,” says Abo Omar.

He claims that about ten of the best known people smugglers in Turkey met recently to discuss how to coordinate the smuggling of refugees.

“On my sister's honour, if you'd come here ten days ago I could have given you a discount. The day before yesterday all ten of us sat here in a meeting. It's got chaotic recently. People we don't know have entered the business. We don't know where they're coming from. No one knows what state the boats that they arrange are in. They're destroying the market. Nothing but a bunch of kids.”

He offers all sorts of solutions to the issue of how my family and I can get to Sweden in a convenient way. It sounds like a cruise. According to him, weíre going to travel on a large boat from Mersin to Italy. The journey will take five days. The captain has a satellite phone that I can use whenever I want to, promises Abo Omar.

“If you want to phone me from the boat, simply ask the crew. They'll ring me and we'll talk,” he says.

He claims that, when we reach the Italian coast, the captain will phone the Red Cross and then we will simply go ashore.

“I've got someone there who can help you onwards to Sweden. Youíll get his phone number and you can call him. If you don't want to, you can simply go straight to the airport, buy a single ticket and continue your journey to Sweden,” he says.

But, what should I tell them in Sweden?

“No problem. You arrive and say 'I'm logistic'. You speak English, don't you?” asks Abo Omar, who claims that he can speak virtually all world languages.

But he means refugee.

I tell him that I'm worried about the journey. It's winter and the storms at sea scare me. I don't want to lose my family. I ask, can't we take a plane from Istanbul to Sweden instead? It's possible, but in that case it would cost us 13,000 euros per person.

“That's expensive. You apply for a visa to Belgium as usual. I have someone who works at the Belgian embassy in Istanbul. He sorts out visas.”

Abo Omar emphasises that this solution is very expensive. He assures me that the boat journey is neither difficult nor dangerous.

He claims that he recently sent his own brother on one of the boats, just to see what the journey was like and how people are treated in Italy.

“My boats have never been involved in serious incidents. How would the boat be able to sink? It'd have to collide with something in that case. Admittedly there have sometimes been minor problems such as oil leaking from the engine or things like that, but theyíre fixed immediately,” he claims.

I know that Abo Omar is lying. Iíve spoken to his victims. He's lying about the boat and about him thinking of my safety. He's only interested in getting paid: 126,500 dollars for 23 people.

He says that he wants it all in cash as soon as we get on the minibus that will take us from the hotel in Mersin to the boat.

Two cars, one behind and one in front of the minibus, will accompany us, he claims. He wonít be coming with us himself.

“We bribe the Turks so that they open a safe corridor for us. Just a short stretch from the hotel to the boat costs us 100,000 dollars in bribes.”

He now proposes a compromise. He says that I can pay half the sum directly to him and the rest to an insurance office in Mersin.

“If anything happens or youíre sent back, your money will be in a safe place. It will be in a sealed bag that I wonít open until you've arrived in Italy. If you're sent back youíll get all your money,” he promises.

He urges me to take immediate action to fetch my family.

“You can travel within 15 days. Otherwise you'll have to wait until the end of January.”

He says,

“You can't take anything with you. There's an unlimited amount of food on board the boat. Blankets, life vests and everything you need.”

The same empty promises that I know he has given to other refugees before me.

OK. How do we pay you? In cash, or otherwise?

“I prefer cash.”

That means that theyíll have to take a lot of money with them. Wonít they be stopped by the Turks here?

“Who?”

The Turks.

“F*** the lot of them.”

They don't ask about such matters?

“I'm the mafia here. We're the real mafia here,” says Abo Omar.

 

Two days after Expressen's meeting with Abo Omar Turkish police raided the smugglers in Mersin.

After that it has been impossible to reach Abo Omar, when Expressen sought him.

He is believed to be loose still.