Criminologist Richard Staring spent six months in Turkey in order to carry out research into human smuggling. “A lot of Syrians probably have a quiet laugh at our European idea of refugees being pathetic and vulnerable.”

Richard Staring lived in a rural village in Central Anatolia for six months in 1986. He was there to do research on the reintegration problems experienced by returning guest workers for his final thesis in Anthropology. He stayed for a while with a young man of Turkish origin who had returned from The Hague to this little Turkish village; he felt that this would help him fulfil his romantic ideas on anthropological field work. “I was living in a village with 150 inhabitants and a classic, highly patriarchal culture of honour. It turned out that there was quite a story behind this lad’s repatriation. He was heavily addicted to heroin and his father sent him back to the village where his parents were born in order to kick the habit. In a way, it was fantastic that this totally different setting felt so far away but at the same time, so close to home because of the Hague dialect I kept hearing every day”, he says.

Staring has never lost his fascination with Turkey and his love of anthropological research into migration flows. Both these factors play a major role in his career and he is currently endowed professor of Mobility, Supervision and Crime at Erasmus School of Law. He spent another six months in Turkey during the current academic year, only in Istanbul this time to finish off his research on the risks of radicalisation among Turkish youngsters. He also made a start on an ethnographical study on human smuggling in Istanbul in order to get a better picture of the problems from the point of view of the smugglers as well as the people being smuggled.

‘You can’t be repressive towards refugees and asylum seekers’

Richard Staring

On Thursday 26 May, Staring will be giving the annual Rotterdam Lecture on the arrival and care of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. This is one of the most complex issues in today’s society: “It’s about irregular migration, human smuggling, how to treat refugees, how to deal with the right to asylum, how to deal with Islam. It’s also about the people who hitch a ride with these migration flows.”

And as if that wasn’t enough, the complexity of the situation means that policymakers are faced with an infernal dilemma: “The huge influx of refugees is happening at the same time as irregular migration and human smuggling, which has always been tackled in a very repressive manner”, he explains. “But you can’t be repressive towards refugees and asylum seekers.”

Sitting in the park with suitcases

Staring regularly spoke with Syrian refugees in Istanbul – in Turkish or in English, since he doesn’t speak Arabic. He says it was fairly easy to make contact with these people. All he had to do was go to certain districts and pop in at the first tea shop he came across, or just sit on a park bench and watch all the migrants walk by.

Districts like Aksaray, on the European side of the Bosphorus, have been specially fixed up to cater to migrants’ needs: “Everyone speaks Arabic there, the tea shops are full of Syrians and you can see whole families sitting with their suitcases in the park”, he adds. “The classic ‘sweatshops’, which are right at the bottom of the informal economy, have partly been taken over by these migrants. And the refugees can buy everything they need there, from telephones and toothbrushes to suitcases and life jackets.”

Richard Staring interview Rotterdamlezing 2
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

What Staring particularly noticed was that all kinds of things are going on there which you would never think of from a Dutch point of view. “For example, I never realised that there’s one group of refugees that travels back and forth between Turkey and Syria the whole time”, he says. “These people earn money in Istanbul, get themselves smuggled back to Syria to visit their families and give them the money, and then travel back on the same route a few weeks later.”

There are an estimated 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and a further 1.5 million in Lebanon. Staring says that not all these people want to migrate to the European Union. He talked to people who are trying to build up a new life in Istanbul because there are opportunities for them there, or they’re afraid of anti-Islam feelings in the EU, or they think the culture shock in the EU would be too big for them. “So that rather puts paid to the idea that millions of Syrians are knocking at our doors.”

More than just refugees

Staring adds that another typically western European idea – that refugees are vulnerable victims – soon vanished during his stay in a migration ‘hot spot’ like Istanbul. “I could see that all the opportunities they have there play a major role in their self-image”, he says. “If you tell a Syrian he’s safe there and he won’t be shot at or bombed, the standard reply is that safety is no good to him if there aren’t any prospects.” He added that they want much more than just a safe place to stay: they want to work and build up a new life there.

‘A lot of Syrians have a quiet laugh at our western European idea of refugees being pathetic and vulnerable’

Richard Staring

This means that most Syrians don’t like to be called ‘refugees’: “Not everyone appreciated the fact that I used that word”, he says. “They said: ‘We may have escaped from war and misery, but we’re autonomous people who are trying to get our lives back to normal.’ They feel you’re taking away their autonomy by referring to them as Syrian refugees. Of course they’re victims of the conflict in their country, but they would far rather define their situation in terms of new opportunities, ambitions and future prospects. I have a feeling that a lot of Syrians have a quiet laugh at our western European idea of refugees being pathetic and vulnerable.”

Legal routes

Staring says that Istanbul was a centre for human smuggling as far back as the 1970s, and that this state of affairs isn’t likely to change. Not even now that the deal between Turkey and the European Union seems to be working out.

The agreement is that migrants who reach the Greek islands through the smuggling routes are sent back to Turkey, and one of the Syrians in a Turkish refugee camp can fly to safety in Europe for each Syrian sent back to Turkey. Staring is cautiously optimistic about this: “These agreements mean that some of the Syrians have a legal route for arriving in Europe, and that’s a good thing”, he says. “This takes the wind out of the smugglers’ sails and means that fewer people make that dangerous crossing.”

‘Migratory pressure will not decrease, so the routes will obviously change’

Richard Staring

“But if there’s one lesson to be learnt in criminology, it’s that this approach results in new escape routes and harsher conditions for human smuggling. That’s the other side of the coin”, he adds. He is unable to forecast how these routes will shift – to the north via Russia, Bulgaria or the Balkans or to the south from Libya to Lampedusa. “But migrants will still keep coming, so the routes will obviously change”, he says.

At the same time, Staring is convinced that the criminal aspects of smuggling in particular will remain in existence. “The smugglers left over will be the hard core of criminal networks, the ones who are willing to take more risks. And this will eventually result in more expense and more dangerous situations for the refugees.”

Differentiated approach

Richard Staring Rotterdamlezing
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Because of this, Staring envisages a more differentiated approach to the refugee question. “A broad-based and typically Dutch approach in which we try all sorts of things at the same time”, he elaborates. His ideas include long-term investments in the region, providing refugees with better information and in particular, devoting more attention to creating legal routes to Europe for migrants.

Although the agreements with Turkey have given hope to some of the Syrians, they also mean that other refugees are not given equal treatment: “Afghans, Eritreans and Iraqis who make it to Greece are sent back to Turkey as well, but they don’t have the chance to apply for asylum in the Turkish refugee camps and fly to Europe”, Staring explains. “They have to register with the UNHCR and start up a long and difficult procedure that generally falls through in the end.” Staring is annoyed that although EU member states grant refugees the right to apply for asylum, they give them hardly any legal opportunities for actually getting to the EU.

Human smuggling circuit is a big grey area

Staring feels that tackling human smuggling in a more targeted and repressive way would be a great help in finding a solution. “It is the duty of governments to intervene in cases involving violence, where safety and fundamental human rights are jeopardised and refugees are held hostage when being smuggled. And maybe we should be more flexible in other cases where refugees are definitely autonomous, or they’re able to say ‘this is getting too dangerous for me, I’m out’.”

He describes a big grey area in the circuit of people who might be guilty of human smuggling according to the letter of the law. One example is the arresting of European relief workers on the island of Lesbos, “but anyone selling a life jacket is a doubtful case if he suspects that the person buying it wants to cross illegally. Or even the people being smuggled because they encourage human smuggling. These are cases under serious consideration in the world of criminal investigation.”

Fixer or smuggler

‘Some people would describe all this as human smuggling. And that’s exactly what it was too.’

Richard Staring

During his stay in Istanbul, Staring spoke with a young man who acted as a kind of confidential advisor to a group of Syrians in the city. “He gave me a pretty detailed description of his activities, how he operated and why he was doing it. This went so far that I told him: ‘Some people would describe all this as human smuggling’. And that’s exactly what it was too.”

This young man apparently kept in contact with smugglers and Syrians wanting to cross over to Europe, collected phone numbers for a Whatsapp group, kept in touch with them during the trip and gave the Greek authorities information on arrivals. “As far as I can gather, all this was done with the best of intentions”, Staring adds.

“I wish I could have spent more time in Istanbul”, he mused in the middle of his story about the Syrian advisor he met. “It really is research that matters, isn’t it?” After all, the story he wants to tell is what policy does to people from the viewpoint of the “vulnerable” ones for whom the policy was thought up. No matter how personal or disagreeable some of these stories are.

Panic on board

Staring remembers three men he interviewed on the evening they were due to be smuggled to Greece. “It feels really weird talking to people who are just about to put on their life jackets, who are sitting there with their suitcases on their knees and telling you they’ll be leaving in an hour’s time. All they knew was where and when they would be picked up for the crossing to one of the Greek islands.” And the very next morning, news came that a large number of migrants had drowned on that particular crossing.

‘You can imagine the panic on board and the danger for the people.’

Richard Staring

“I tried to find out if my three were among those who drowned”, Staring continues. “Luckily, I heard about 10 days later that they hadn’t gone on that particular trip after all. They left a few days afterwards, reached Greece in safety and were on their way to Germany.” The three men Staring had spoken with the evening before could just as easily have been drowned on that crossing. “It’s a huge shock, even if you don’t know the people well”, he confesses. “It’s a horrible feeling. You can imagine the panic on board and the danger for the people. That was the first time I really felt the dynamism and tension involved in migration.”