Charon, in Greek mythology, was a grim and sombre ferryman who transported souls of the newly dead across the river Acheron to the Underworld. Those who did not pay a silver coin for the ride were pitilessly thrown out of the boat.
Nowadays, there is another kind of ferrymen. Part of the modern underworld, they transport refugees from their war-torn hells to potential salvation.
Just like Charon, they charge money for their services, but can’t always promise safe passage to their voyagers. They are smugglers of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, and their trail is littered with dead bodies.
In Belgrade, Serbia, we meet these smugglers at their usual rendezvous: café Kušet, near the central train station.
As we enter, all eyes turn in our direction. It is obvious – we as locals and journalists are not welcome here.
While we are fidgeting with our cameras and recorders, three bulky men, who speak Pashto and are likely from Afghanistan, sit at the nearby booth and glance at us, trying to figure out where we are from and whether we represent any kind of danger.
[M]any former refugees who fail to make it to the European Union stay in Serbia and join the smuggling ring.
For all we know, they could have been migrants, just like hundreds of others outside of this café and in the park.
In fact, many former refugees who fail to make it to the European Union stay in Serbia and join the smuggling ring be it as guides, translators or full-blown smugglers.
At the end of August, for instance, members of a mostly Bulgarian gang were responsible for the death of 71 people who were found suffocated in an abandoned van on a highway in Austria. One of the men involved was an Afghan national with Hungarian residence papers.
A necessary evil
As we begin to speak with the men, we find out that transport from Preševo (Serbia’s border with Macedonia) to Subotica (Serbia’s border with Hungary) costs €300 per head. The “family package” price is negotiated on the spot, and children usually pay half price.
Serbia is just one section on the “Balkans route” and it can cost up to €10,000 to smuggle a person from Turkey to a Western European destination.
Our source tells us that the smugglers have the process down to an art.
These prices vary depending on the quality and comfort of the service, with higher prices usually equating to a higher survival rate.
Our source tells us that the smugglers have the process down to an art: the paying customer is told exactly what to do when he or she enters Greece, whom to call in Macedonia, and who is waiting for them in Serbia.
When the customer arrives in Serbia, he or she is usually taken by cab drivers, or sometimes minivans, to the main points of meeting.
There they spend one or more nights in hostels or motels before continuing their journey toward the northern border, where they are met by their next connection.
The “clients” must make sure that they have enough money to pay for any travel expenses, such as road tolls, but also for the fine if they are caught.
“[People smugglers] do not care about the well-being of the refugees, they care about profit.”
“People smugglers are criminals and not well-minded helpers,” said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, commenting on the recent tragedy in Austria. “They do not care about the well-being of the refugees, they care about profit.”
But, in the eyes of the refugees and other migrants, human traffickers are just a necessary evil.
The migrants are those who pay the price, be it in hard currency or with their lives. They are caught between hammer and anvil: the desire to leave their war-torn homeland and the perils of such a gruelling journey.
Interventions and penalties
Speaking to the reporters outside her home in British Columbia, Tima Kurdi, a Canadian citizen and aunt of the Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi who drowned in Turkey trying to reach Europe, held herself responsible for the tragedy.
“I blame myself because my brother does not have money,” she said. “I sent him the money to pay the smuggler. If I didn’t send him the money, those people still (would be) alive.”
Responsibility also lies in the hands of the western countries’ governments, who have only recently begun to intervene.
The Head of National Police Headquarters’ Border Security Department in Hungary, László Balász, told press that police have intervened with 913 human traffickers this year.
For assisting the unauthorized border crossing in Serbia, smugglers face jail time of anywhere between six months and five years.
If the perpetrators are public servants or officials who are found guilty of abusing their authority to the point where people are found dead, the penalty may go up to 10 years.
Considering this, transporting migrants across the sea and by the land is a calculated risk, but it appears that many of the human traffickers and their helpers feel spending a few years in jail is worth the money they stand to make off this human tragedy.
Zoran Vidic is a communications and public relations specialist, open source analyst, reporter, writer and editor with over 15 years of experience in Canada and Serbia. Zoran holds a BA in journalism and political science from the Belgrade University in Serbia, and a MA in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa. Vidic has been living in Kyiv, Ukraine since 2017.