In the rundown Pedion Areos Park, older men walk slowly by young asylum seekers before agreeing on a price for sex.
Athens, Greece – Alacan* is a tailor in his mid-50s who runs a small, but busy, shop in central Athens.
But when he is not at his sewing machine, he is usually in the back streets of Victoria Square – an area of the Greek capital that is home to many refugees and migrants – running a different kind of business.
For Alacan is also a middleman who facilitates the exchange of documents, passport photos and money between human smugglers and refugees wanting to be smuggled out of Greece.
“I know the ways and I know the people,” he explains one afternoon in October.
Last March, Macedonia sealed its borders with Greece, effectively cutting off the most popular land-based route into central Europe and leaving more than 50,000 refugees stranded in Greece. That number has risen to 62,000 as boats continue to arrive from Turkey.
Many refugees, wanting to move on rather than apply for asylum in Greece, turn to smugglers.
Travelling over land, an arduous journey – particularly during the winter, can take weeks and is often a last resort. But to leave by air requires buying a fake passport from a smuggler.
Alacan says “hundreds” of refugees attempt to leave Greece each month on fake passports, often paying double what they would to travel by land. According to the Greek police, arrests of refugees carrying counterfeit passports has gone up by about 230 percent since the closure of the Balkan route.
With European countries planning to send refugees who first entered the EU through Greece back to the country from mid-March, the UNHCR has raised concerns that more refugees might turn to smugglers before that date. “Smugglers might use this for marketing purposes,” said Roland Schoenbauer, a senior communication and public information officer at the UNHCR.
Alacan calls what he does “favours” for friends and friends of friends, and says he does not accept any money in exchange for his services.
“Whenever I can, I help people,” he explains, adding that he wants to assist people from his own country, Syria.
Alacan is adamant that he’s not breaking the law. He would never risk doing anything that could see him end up in prison, he explains, especially as he has a wife and daughter to support.
Whenever a customer enters his shop, however, he quickly changes the subject.
Smugglers and counterfeiters usually make fake passports from stolen documents, explains Alacan, adding that the smugglers prefer Italian, Spanish, Albanian, Bulgarian and French passports as lighter-skinned Arabs and Afghans have a better chance of passing as one of these nationalities.
“They used to just cut the page with the names and the photo and put another page in,” Alacan says.
But now the smugglers have gotten better at altering passports. “If the age of the passport and the guy that will need it is two to three years within range of each other, they will just change the photo,” he says. This they refer to as “photo change”.
The smugglers tend to be foreigners, Alacan explains, and are often the same nationality as their clients.
“[Greeks] don’t know this technology,” he says. “They don’t know how to do this type of job.”
According to Nasim Lomani, a former refugee from Afghanistan, who lives legally in Greece and runs a refugee camp in central Athens, the smuggling chain is long and complicated.
The process usually begins with a refugee speaking to someone with whom they can easily communicate, he explains. Then they are passed from person to person. Who could be defined as a smuggler is not always clear cut, Lomani says.
“If you go to Victoria Square, for example, looking for someone to help you go to another country, I would be 90 percent sure this person could introduce you to a smuggler, and who is himself a smuggler in the process of finding a way forward, as well,” he explains.
Those at the lowest rung of the smuggling hierarchy, usually the first person with whom a refugee makes contact, take the blame if anything goes wrong, he explains.
Abbas is a smuggler. He prefers not to reveal his nationality, but claims to be one of the best passport counterfeiters.
When we meet in late October, Abbas has been in Athens for 45 days, but says he knows the area around Victoria Square and the adjacent neighbourhood of Omonia – where many refugees stay in cheap accommodation while they await the completion of their asylum process – better than most Greeks. This, after all, is where he conducts most of his transactions.
He drives a slick silver Audi that smells of new leather and stale cigarette smoke. Inside are the numerous chargers he needs for his many mobile phones.
Abbas makes “photo change” and “photo similar” passports. Although he will not reveal his exact procedure, he says a steady hand and CoralDRAW are indispensable to his work.
“In ‘photo change’, using our tools, we put a new photo on top of the old photo and press it together,” he explains. “I am professional. When I make a passport with ‘photo change’ nobody can see. I can see, but not many people can see.”
“Photo similar” passports are those in which the photo of the original owner resembles the new owner sufficiently to leave the document unaltered. These passports give refugees a better chance of passing through airport security undetected.
“Work here is good. I will stay here,” Abbas says during a car ride through Athens.
He knows that what he is doing is illegal, he explains, but he believes he’s doing a good thing by helping refugees.
And, what drives him to work illegally, he adds, is his need to pay for his bedridden wife’s medical care back at home.
She has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and requires round-the-clock care.
“I work to solve this problem,” he explains in a text message.
“If my wife goes from this life, I don’t need to work,” another message, ending with several expletives, elaborates.
Many factors push already vulnerable refugees to rely on smugglers, says Schoenbauer of the UNHCR.
Lengthy relocation and asylum processing times, as well as deteriorating camp conditions, are some of the reasons behind the mounting frustration and sense of hopelessness within Greece’s refugee community, he explains.
When refugees turn to smugglers “there’s absolutely nothing we can do but continue to pray for their safety”, says Lisa Campbell, the director of Do Your Part, an American NGO based in a camp in Oinofyta, a small town on the outskirts of Athens.
Campbell’s organisation has provided food, shelter and medical services to hundreds of refugees for almost a year.
Unlike the closed camps run by the military, the nearly 700 residents of the Oinofyta open camp are free to come and go.
From Campbell’s camp alone, 150 refugees have been smuggled across the border in the past few months. Some have used fake passports to fly to their final destination, while others have gone on foot.
She says she often tries to talk refugees out of being smuggled over land by explaining the dangers and risks. Lack of food, exposure to freezing temperatures, and waiting in hideouts for weeks are among the most common experiences. Sometimes, refugees have been raped or killed by smugglers.
“We’ve all heard horror stories about people who have been left out in tents in the woods for weeks while they were waiting for a smuggler to call them – no food, no water, nothing,” Campbell says.
“In one of the groups that got smuggled out during the summer and ended up in Hungary, a 13-year-old girl watched a smuggler kill someone and in the process of running away she broke her foot.”
She says refugees are not too concerned about being caught by the police. They know “if they are caught they are detained and questioned about the smuggler, and then sent [away]”.
Once released, most simply return to the camp they came from and begin planning their next attempt.
It is difficult to take away the hope that the smugglers represent, Campbell says.
“That’s what it is. It’s hope of something better than being stuck in Greece.”
“Either they stay in these refugee camps for the next five years, because nobody can find a job and the refugee camps are feeding them, or they go with smugglers,” she explains.
In early October, one of the families at the makeshift camp in Oinofyta, where more than three dozen tents surround an abandoned factory, is that of 23-year-old Aziza from Afghanistan.
Aziza sits with her five-month-old son in her lap while her husband, 25-year-old Omar speaks with his parents and younger brother in their tent. They are discussing their plans to leave Greece. Omar’s family have tried to leave by air using fake passports three times. Each time, they have failed.
On their last attempt, police confiscated their Spanish passports and ID cards at the airport in Athens and directed them to the exit. They returned to their camp.
Alacan and several refugees who have been caught travelling on fake passports explain that the police usually focus on identifying smugglers rather than detaining refugees.
“Even if they catch someone in the airport, he will just give a name, not the real name, and he will give the number of the smuggler. But phones are like nothing for these guys so they just cut it and get a new one,” Alacan explains.
Aziza and her family spent the previous winter on the run. They fled Afghanistan one night in early 2016, after her husband, who had worked for the US military, was repeatedly targeted by the Taliban. A car bomb that left him in a critical state was the final straw. Aziza was six months pregnant when they fled – first to Tehran, from where they paid a smuggler to transport them into Turkey in the back of a truck.
“We were without food, water and blankets for over 24 hours,” Omar recalls.
Once there, the family made their way to the coastal city of Dikili, where they paid a smuggler $1,000 a person for a spot on an overcrowded inflatable rubber dinghy bound for the Greek island of Lesbos. On April 4, they arrived in Lesbos and then made their way to Athens.
Omar says they never imagined that they would have to turn to smugglers once in the EU.
His parents and brother had bought “photo change” passports for 3,000 euros (around $3,200) each in order to attempt a fourth air journey.
But in late December, the entire family instead attempted a land crossing with 10 others from the camp. The group was caught in Albania, along with their smuggler.
But the family escaped house arrest and managed to get themselves smuggled to Serbia, where they now live in a camp.
“In Greece, there is no life for us,” Aziza says over Facebook messenger from Serbia in late December. “That’s why I choose to go and [take] the risk.”
Farzad is an Afghan in his mid-20s. In October, I meet him at the Oinofyta camp, where he is living with his wife and their two-year-old daughter.
He is considering buying fake passports, as his daughter and wife have fair skin and blond hair and that, he reasons, gives them a good chance of passing undetected through immigration. But his complexion is dark and he worries about being turned away and separated from his family.
“If they make it onto the plane and I don’t, we will become separated,” he reflects. “I don’t want to be separated from them. Who will take care of them if not me?”
He weighs up the option of buying the fake passports or trying the more difficult and dangerous overland route. But there is a third option, he says.
Refugees refer to this as the “guarantee game”.
“Game” refers to any attempt at crossing a border; “guarantee” to bribes paid to immigration officers.
“[But] even in the ‘guarantee game’ there is no guarantee,” says Farzad.
And it’s the most expensive option.
The refugees travel on fake passports and, through a smuggler, pay bribes to people inside the airport. It can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,500, depending on the smuggler and the number of bribes to be paid.
“The smugglers use this to deal with the cops working in the airport,” says Farzad, who was told this by a smuggler he was thinking of buying passports from.
“The police officers in the airport will know exactly which day and when the flight for Germany is, for example, and on that day he will call the smugglers and say to send their passengers.”
Once the refugees arrive at the check-in area, the police, having already seen their photos, let them pass.
But, Farzad explains, there is always the risk of schedule changes.
“The officers know that the passengers are coming, but some changes might happen inside the airport with the staff, with new police officers.”
When this happens, the new officers will likely catch the refugees travelling on fake passports.
Farzad is wary about spending so much money on something so risky.
The Greek police are currently implementing new security measures. According to a statement they sent to Al Jazeera: “In order to address the criminal organisations involved in facilitating the illegal entry of foreigners in Greece, but also in their exit, with a final destination of central Europe and the preparation and sale of forged documents, a series of measures have been taken by the competent prosecuting authorities.”
These measures include providing equipment designed to detect false passports, such as portable counterfeit document detection devices, and fingerprint readers, as well as providing increased information to border police working in airports.
The Greek police did not respond to several requests for comment regarding the alleged involvement of some airport officers in allowing refugees to travel on counterfeit documents.
Since the mass influx of asylum seekers began in early 2015, the smuggling business has flourished in Greece.
Greece, the EU and the international humanitarian community have struggled to stay abreast of the ever-evolving methods smugglers use to move people across borders.
“In some ways, [smuggling] has also become less sophisticated, because it’s harder to track [that way],” Campbell says, citing the example of how some smugglers have stopped using bank deposits and now get refugees to deposit cash into locked boxes located in designated spots around Athens. ”How do you electronically track cash in a box with a lock?” she asks.
“It has been observed in many places around the world that the moment you have orderly ways in dealing with migration, and orderly ways of monitoring and managing borders without closing them, this is the moment you don’t have such a huge smuggling business,” Schoenbauer says.
But when refugees view smugglers as both saviours and a necessity, containing the smuggling business is not so straightforward.
As Omar put it one night in his tent at the Oinofyta camp: “They do not want to be known as bad people, because they will not get any business if they are bad – and most of them aren’t bad people, they are helping us.”
Two months later, messaging via WhatsApp from Serbia, where he and his family now await the processing of their asylum cases, Omar says he still believes smugglers are good, despite the fact that his family was caught while travelling with one.
“I’m very happy we left Greece, because in Greece there were no doors open to us – everything was closed,” he says.
*The names of Alacan, Abbas and all refugees have been changed to protect their identity.
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