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Meet the Freedom-Fighting Smugglers on the Syrian Border

(…) As violence has intensified in Syria, the human smuggling business has boomed—in both directions. Syrian civilians employ smugglers in hopes of getting out of harms way, while journalists, aid groups, and human rights organizations hire them to gain access to the front lines. Gaining access to their services can be an expensive proposition: Sources confirmed that smugglers have asked for upward of $20,000 for a single trip. But, increasingly, smugglers are giving a free ride to international journalists, or anyone else who promises to spread the word about the stakes in Syria. Indeed, perhaps the most telling aspect of this burgeoning market is that it’s informed by a calculus that’s not strictly economic.

While many people now working as human smugglers were also regular smugglers of money and goods before the conflict began, many more began smuggling people through the border only after the violence began. Take Yousef Haj, for example. When he left last year amid the merciless slaughter being committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Haj didn’t know if he would ever be able to return to his home near Syria’s Turkish border. But after arriving in the refugee camp here, he realized he wanted to play a part in fighting against the government that forced him to flee. Haj has been helping smuggle people and aid back into Syria ever since.

Haj joined the group knowing nothing about the job. His first glimpse at the business was when he himself traveled the same route as the refugees he is now guiding. Now, he works in a group of more than 40 people, all of whom are volunteers. Over time, Haj memorized the roads and danger zones, learning which routes were safe, and which ones were heavily guarded by Assad’s forces. Now, he and his group use different systems to warn of new landmines planted by Assad’s forces. “It’s getting safer,” he said. “We put someone in the front who is not wanted by the regime.” He wouldn’t say how many times he has crossed the border, but he has been making frequent trips for the past nine months.

(…) But many smugglers have strictly humanitarian, rather than insurrectionary, motivations. The Assad regime only allows one aid organization to operate within Syria—the Syrian Red Crescent. Many refugees view the organization as ineffective because they suspect it has strong connections to the Assad regime. As an alternative to relying on the Red Crescent, Syrian civilians began organizing their own groups to smuggle aid into Syria.

The Syrian Relief Fund, a nonprofit based in Antakya smuggling aid into Syria, claims to channel aid from Syrian donors directly to families in Homs and Hama, where a video is taken of the transaction and subsequently smuggled out of the country. A leading employee of the Syrian Relief Fund who wished to remain anonymous was insistent that the organization did not associate in any way with the Syrian Red Crescent. But initiatives like Syrian Relief Fund have not been uncontroversial; many have been accused of not delivering the entirety of their aid. Rumors are circulating on both sides of the border of individual smugglers and entire aid groups keeping for themselves the donations that are meant for the Syrian people.

Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based out of Cairo. Sophia Jones is a recent Overseas Press Club Fellow and freelance journalist based out of Cairo.

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