The busboys were nearly done clearing the tables at Captain Kadir’s Place, a seaside tavern on the western coast of Turkey, when the sound of clinking dishes was interrupted by cries of distress from the sea. It was too dark on that early-August night to spot the source of the screaming. But owner Kadri Guner knew what had happened: another boat full of migrants departing for Greece had capsized near the shore. He could see the smugglers who had launched the boat still standing on the beach nearby, listening to their clients thrash about in the water. “For them it doesn’t really matter what happens to the boats,” Guner says of the smugglers a few weeks later, recalling the scene from the strip of beach that serves as his restaurant’s dining room. “They get their money anyway. And the police here get a piece of it.”
Over the course of this summer and early autumn, Guner has watched the 2-mile (3.2 km) stretch of the shore around Fener Beach, on Turkey’s Bodrum peninsula, turn into one of the busiest staging areas for migrant smuggling in the world. The reason is geography: the nearest bit of European soil is less than five miles away, on the Greek island of Kos, and even a crude motorboat can reach it in less than an hour–unless something goes wrong.
So far this year, about 390,000 migrants have made the crossing by boat to Greece–more than 153,000 of them in September alone, compared with 43,500 such arrivals in Greece in all of 2014. Hundreds of migrants have died in the waters between Greece and Turkey so far this year, while 3,000 in total have drowned in the greater Mediterranean, often after their boats deflate or flip over in the water along the way.
In early September, Fener Beach gained notoriety after the body of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi was discovered there, lying facedown in the sand. The boat that had been carrying his family and a dozen other migrants had capsized on its way to Greece, and the images of his tiny corpse, on front pages around the world, drove home the tragedy of Europe’s migrant crisis and the indifference of the smugglers who fuel it. “For a few days the boats stopped going from here after that,” says Guner. “Then it started again just the same as before.” Between two tamarisk trees above the beach where the boy’s body was found, some locals have hung a sign that reads in Turkish, shame on humanity.
It didn’t seem to shame the smugglers. The only lasting effect of that tragedy on their business model appears to have been an increase in the prices they charge. An adult migrant now pays an average of $1,200–up from $1,000 in August–to cross, with children traveling at half that price or less. In August and September, about 100 boats crossed to Greece from Turkey every day, each one packed with upwards of 40 people.
That would amount to roughly $5 million a day in revenue for the smugglers, enough to entice criminals into the business from the less lucrative–and much riskier–trade in drugs, sex workers and contraband, says Myria Vassiliadou, the chief coordinator for antitrafficking efforts in the European Union. “Organized criminals don’t have a job description,” she says. And in the business of smuggling migrants, she says, there are “astronomical amounts of profit.” By her estimate, this international industry could be worth billions of dollars per year, especially when one factors in related forms of commerce like the legal trade in boats and life jackets. And the smugglers help create demand by advertising their services in poor communities in Turkey, the Middle East and many parts of Africa.
The Turkish government, which says it has spent close to $6 billion over the past five years on the task of accommodating Syrian refugees, has little incentive to stop the smugglers who send them on toward Europe. Yet Ankara has repeatedly denied abetting this industry. In a statement on Sept. 9, the Turkish ambassador to Greece, Kerim Uras, said Turkey had rescued some 40,000 migrants from the sea this year and arrested 86 of their smugglers. “We certainly do not ‘look the other way,’ nor do we ‘actively promote the exodus,'” Uras wrote in a Greek newspaper.
But in offering solutions to the migrant crisis, Turkey has focused on plans to build E.U.-financed “safe zones” in northern Syria to which the refugees might “voluntarily return.” After the death of Alan Kurdi in Turkish waters, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the blame on European countries for turning the Mediterranean Sea into a “migrant cemetery.” He made no specific pledges to fight the smuggling networks that profit from such tragedies.
In recent months, the windfall from this industry has clearly been substantial enough for smugglers to invest in some impressive infrastructure along the Turkish coast. Hastily built hotels, restaurants and camping sites have cropped up on the beaches that traffickers control, all of them used to accommodate migrants as they are shipped off to Greece, according to local authorities and business owners who watch this nightly traffic.
Europol, the E.U.’s main police agency, estimated in September that around 30,000 people are involved in the smuggling of migrants to Europe. But the few who get caught are usually those who transport them by bus to the coast or cram them onto overcrowded boats. Their bosses, usually sitting in Turkey’s biggest cities, never get anywhere near the beaches they control, which makes it nearly impossible to prove their involvement, according to Orcun Ulusoy, a Turkish legal expert who served from 2010 to 2013 as the U.N. refugee agency’s lawyer in the Turkish coastal city of Izmir. “It is like fighting with ghosts,” he says.
In early June, just as the migration wave began to peak, a group of men from out of town opened a restaurant near Fener Beach on a desolate cliff overlooking the water. It seemed like a strange idea for a business at the time. Since the area has become synonymous in Turkey with human trafficking, tourism has dropped by more than half, and the local hotels and restaurants have been complaining all year of a sharp decline in clients.
But the location offered advantages for other kinds of business. On either side of the restaurant, named Vena Beach, there is a footpath leading down to one of the most popular launching points for migrant boats in Turkey, a rocky and isolated section of the coast that sits only three miles from the nearest Greek island. When the restaurant was finished, the owners put up a metal gate to guard it from the nearby road. They never seemed to have many patrons, but the neighbors soon noticed another form of commerce springing up: rubber boats leaving from the beach below, some nights as many as five at a time. “Sometimes you can see the migrants come during the day and wait in the restaurant,” says Guner, who lives a short walk away. “Then around half past midnight they go down to the beach with the boats.” (Two other locals confirmed such sightings in separate interviews, but Guner, a retired officer of the Turkish intelligence service, was the only one who agreed to give his name.)
On one evening in mid-September, the shore beneath the restaurant was littered with smuggling paraphernalia–life vests, deflated boats, the pumps used to inflate them–and later that night at least one boat could be seen leaving from the beach in the direction of Greece.
The following afternoon around lunchtime, the restaurant was empty except for a few tired employees. One explained that the kitchen wasn’t working but served me tea while the proprietor arrived. He turned out to be a 28-year-old named Firat Unvar from the Turkish province of Mardin, which lies on the border with Syria and houses a large camp for refugees. Unvar says he moved to this part of the Turkish coast near Greece early this year, just as the migration wave was gathering force, and invested about $175,000 in the construction of the restaurant. “But no one expected it would be so bad,” he says, referring to the flood of migrants.
On most nights, as the restaurant is closing up, Unvar also hears and sees the boats leaving from the beach just below, but he says he has nothing to do with the smugglers who help them. “We don’t know who the smugglers are,” he says. “They might look like smugglers but actually just be migrants.”
A Migrant’s journey–odyssey is perhaps a better word–typically begins at a camp like the one in far-off Mardin, where Turkish smugglers employ Syrians to offer passage to Europe to fellow refugees. Most of the money changes hands at so-called insurance offices in Istanbul–usually no more than currency-exchange booths–where migrants deposit their payments and receive a personalized password. Once safely in Greece, a traveler is supposed to send the password back to the smuggler so he can use it to pick up the cash.
But these operations don’t always go as planned. Mohammed Yusef, a 26-year-old sound engineer who made music videos in Damascus before fleeing in August, says he deposited $2,000 at an insurance office in Istanbul–the payment for himself and his uncle to get to Greece–only to have the smuggler disappear and the fly-by-night office close down, making off with his money. On their second attempt, Yusef and his uncle were taken by bus from Istanbul to the coast, where they were told to sleep in tents for nine days until their boat was ready.
Many more migrants kept arriving at the campsite each day, and on the night of departure, the smugglers tried to stuff all 50 of them onto a dinghy meant for 15 people. “When we demanded another boat, one of them pulled out a gun and told us to get on,” says Yusef. Another of the smugglers then boarded the boat with the migrants and steered it toward Greece before jumping off and swimming back to shore. Unfamiliar with the boat’s mechanics, the migrants wound up lost at sea for about 12 hours before reaching the Greek island of Leros. It wouldn’t have helped, says Yusef, to punish their smugglers by refusing to send the password for their payment. “After some days, if we die, they can still pick up the money,” he says.
Before August, when he met a smuggler in an Istanbul suburb, Alisher Ali, a 21-year-old migrant from Pakistan with a chipped front tooth, had no intention of claiming asylum in Europe. He had been working on a farm outside Istanbul for about 16 months with dozens of other Pakistani migrants. “Fourteen hours every day we were pushing the soil for bread and water,” says Ali. So he had reason to wish for a better life. But it was the Turkish smuggler who planted the dream of Europe in his head.
For $1,000, the smuggler offered to take Ali to the Turkish coast and put him on a boat to Greece, where he said Ali would be entitled to welfare benefits and the right to study at a university. But only the first part of that promise was fulfilled. Having paid the money, which amounted to his life savings, Ali was taken in a bus from Istanbul to the Bodrum peninsula, where a group of men robbed him and left him stranded on an unfamiliar beach.
He was not alone. Outside the main bus terminal in the city of Bodrum, Ali found a group of several hundred other migrants, nearly all from Pakistan, living on a dusty slope where cacti provide the only shade. Most had been living and working in Turkey for more than a year before smugglers tricked them into paying for a journey to Europe that never materialized. Muhammed Malik, a 19-year-old from Lahore, said smugglers took him on a fishing boat from Bodrum and dropped him off on an island they claimed to be Greek. “Then the coast guards came,” he says, “and told me I was still in Turkey.”
While desperation is pushing many migrants to begin the journey to Europe, smugglers are clearly pulling them as well. On that slope near the Bodrum bus terminal, the smugglers circulate among the migrants every day, asking whether anyone has come up with the money to pay for the journey. One of their hangouts is a grimy motorcycle-repair shop across the street called Turkuaz Motor, whose owner, Sezai Oguz, does a brisk trade in secondhand outboard motors.
Often, he says, the migrants try to cut costs by simply buying a motorboat and attempting the journey themselves. “They come and tell me in Tarzan language, with hands and noises, what they want,” he says. They can rarely afford more than a used motor for $1,000 with only four or five horsepower–barely enough to carry a boat full of migrants to Greece. “I’m all sold out of those right now,” says Oguz.
One enterprising hardware and furniture store, the Koyuncuoglu Construction Market, even decided to add inflatable motorboats to its inventory early this summer, laying them out next to the wicker dining-room sets at the edge of its parking lot. “These are very, very popular items,” says Yasar Ozdemir, the market’s deputy floor manager. Every other day this summer, he says, some Arabic-speaking customers come and buy a boat for around $3,000, as well as a set of 10 to 15 life vests in various sizes, even ones for children. “Of course we all know what they’re doing with these boats,” he says.
Up and down the Turkish coast, life jackets for sale can be found hanging outside cigarette kiosks, clothing stores and at least one barbershop in Bodrum. Engin Olcay, the owner of the city’s largest fishing and boating emporium, the Marina Plaza, wishes the migrants would come to him instead. “We offer quality here,” he says, holding up a life vest that retails for $120. Olcay says that after the body of Alan Kurdi washed ashore in early September without a life vest, the Turkish government should have started giving life jackets to the migrants for free. “It’s important to provide these vests,” he says, “just as you provide the migrants with water or food, because it saves their lives.”
Sitting in his office with a view of the Bodrum marina, a senior maritime official who declined to speak on the record acknowledges that the Turkish coast guard often allows the migrant boats to pass. “We as the navy, the coast guard, as soldiers, when we see refugees stuffed in these boats, our first mission is to get close, check around for the wind and waves, approaching very carefully,” he says. “But they threaten us with their babies,” he continues. “They hold up the baby and say they will throw it if we take them back.” So in many cases, he says, the coast-guard ships will simply escort the migrant boats until they reach Greek waters, allowing them to carry on from there.
The official adds that local police along the western coast of Turkey often turn a blind eye as well, and it’s hard to blame them, he says, pointing out that Turkey now hosts nearly 2 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world. “They don’t want to stay here,” says the official. “Why should we force them to stay?”
In some cases, though, Turkish police do not just ignore the smugglers; they seem to encourage them. One afternoon in early September, TIME photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I came upon a deserted beach near the coastal town of Assos, where two outboard motors awaited beside two gasoline canisters. On a cliff above the beach, a group of men in life jackets was waiting to depart. But after spotting us, two Turkish men came down from the cliff to explain that the area was off-limits. One then signaled to a pair of uniformed officers who had been observing the scene from the other end of the beach. The police officers, armed with assault rifles, inspected our documents and instructed us to stop filming and photographing the area. They made no move to stop the apparent smuggling operation that had been in progress.
Ulusoy, the former lawyer for the U.N.’s refugee agency in Turkey, says such arrangements are typical. The smugglers often “know the local authorities and use them as a kind of protection,” he says. The profits then get passed around among the police, provincial officials and even the military, “because otherwise it would be impossible to smuggle a person to Europe.”
That assessment fits with the experience of Guner, the owner of Captain Kadir’s Place, who says he has tried multiple times to report smugglers to the local police. When a migrant boat capsizes near the coast, he and his waiters usually bring the fishing boat they use for netting barracuda and go out to pluck the people from the water. That’s what happened that night in August, when a group of Pakistanis nearly drowned on their way to Greece. After helping bring nine of them ashore in his fishing boat, Guner even gave police the license-plate numbers of the vans that smugglers use to bring their clients to Fener Beach. But it did no good. “There is too much money,” says Guner, looking out at the sun as it sank behind the island of Kos. “When there is so much money it won’t stop. It will never stop.”
This appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of TIME.