RANYA, Iraq – Shoes pile up outside the Mamand house in northern Iraq.
Most are afraid to express fears that Twana Mamand, 18, drowned along with at least 26 other people when their fragile boat sank near the French coast last week. They had left for Britain hoping to start a new life.
Zana Mamand, 33, wiped away her tears and vowed revenge on the family of the smuggler who organized her brother’s trip. “I know him, I know his family here, I have all of their phone numbers,” he said.
In Ranya, a town of around 400,000 people located in the Kurdish-ruled Iraqi region, the plight of migrants seems to be something everyone is familiar with.
Those who want to go out are asking local travel agents to put them in touch with smugglers in Turkey and elsewhere. Those who have returned from failed attempts hang out in the main park, eager to try again. At the police station, officers say they cannot stop the smugglers.
Many of the victims of the Channel tragedy are believed to be Iraqi Kurds, who appear to constitute the majority of Middle Eastern migrants seeking to settle in the West. Although northern Iraq is more prosperous than the rest of the conflict-ravaged country, growing unemployment and frustration over corruption is forcing many to consider the risky trip to Europe.
About 28,000 Iraqis left for Europe in 2021, including around 7,000 from the Raparin district which includes Ranya and the neighboring town of Qaladze, said Baker Ali, head of a local association of refugees returning from Europe.
MISSING AT SEA
Twana had made five unsuccessful attempts to cross the Channel from Calais before boarding a small boat on the evening of 23 November.
The routine was the same: before each attempt to cross, the smugglers would select a travel office in Ranya where Zana would deposit money.
That night, Zana spoke to her brother by phone just before midnight. He asked about the weather, the boat and the others with him.
“The boat is not good,” he recalls as Twana replied, explaining that it was too small, and that there were 33 people waiting to cross – too many for the boat.
They spoke to each other again at 2:05 a.m. on November 24. During a four-minute call, Twana laughed and joked, telling her older brother that they would dock in an hour. Zana was tired and asked her sister, Kala, who lives in the UK, to stay online.
In her last post, Twana said the engine was not working.
A STRUGGLE TO FIND WORK
Twana was athletic and particularly good at football. Zana proudly showed off pictures of himself charging the pitch with the ball, a look of unwavering determination on his face.
He didn’t care much about school, doubting it would allow him to find a job. But almost everyone in the family struggled to find work. Zana, a firefighter, rarely received his salary on time or in full. Sometimes Twana worked as a laborer 12 hours a day, earning 15,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $ 10.
When he was 18, Twana said nothing would stop him from going to Europe. The trip would be expensive: $ 13,000 to cross from Turkey to Italy. From there, Twana should find her way to Calais, France. Then it would cost an additional $ 3,000 to cross the Channel to the UK
On a Turkish visa, he traveled to Istanbul in September and discovered that there were a lot of smugglers from his home region, including Ranya and Qaladze.
Twana made three unsuccessful attempts to cross from Turkey to Italy, each with a different passer. The money, obtained by borrowing and selling their father’s house, was deposited with a designated travel agent who withdrew it whenever the businesses failed, Zana said.
When Twana finally reached Italy at the end of October, the travel agent sent the money, he said. The same procedure was used when Twana reached Calais.
FIND “THE BEST CONTRABANDS” FOR CUSTOMERS
Abdullah Omar’s office window offers a view of the bustling center of Ranya. His agency, Yaran Travel, is on the second floor, above the popular tea shops.
Here, the 35-year-old travel agent summed up his case: “I help people find the best couriers to take them to Europe.
He has high standards, he said, only working with those who have helped people reach their destinations with the fewest complaints. The smugglers are his relatives, including a brother in Turkey.
He has helped more than 500 people this year, a number that is steadily increasing, he said. Most want to go to the UK where they have relatives who have applied for asylum years earlier. The smugglers are asking potential migrants to leave Omar a bond once they have a visa for Turkey.
From Turkey, most are smuggled into Italy via risky sea routes. Others are trying for Greece or Bulgaria.
Omar mediates between smugglers and migrants and their relatives in Iraq, using the so-called hawala network in Muslim countries where individuals rather than banks act as brokers for money transfers. It does not release funds via hawala until all parties agree.
It sometimes sends funds directly to migrants who “run out of money and sleep in train stations in Italy, or get sick,” Omar said.
A smuggler from Iraq’s Qaladze region said he started bringing people from Belarus into Poland in July. It was easier than other routes, he told The Associated Press by phone, as Belarus had relaxed visa restrictions and he had a friend in Poland who drove migrants to Germany for a fee. .
But after tensions rose along the Belarus-Poland border in November, business stopped, said Shwan, who did not give his full name because he feared he would be in trouble with the authorities.
When news reached Zana that his brother might be dead, he went to the office of the agent where he had left his deposit and threatened him in a fit of rage. The officer explained to him how to reach the smuggler, who goes by the name “Bashdar Ranya”, a pseudonym.
As Ranya is relatively small, Zana quickly found the smuggler’s family. He threatened to send information about the smuggler to his sister in the UK to report it to authorities.
Zana was then contacted by the elusive smuggler through Facebook’s messaging app, in which he said in a voicemail that he was on the run in Germany.
Zana passed the message on to an AP journalist, the recording breaking the dismal silence in the Mamand house.
“I’m sorry. It was a surprise to me too,” the voice said of the sinking. “I’ll compensate you.”
AP attempts to reach the smuggler via a contact in France provided by Zana were unsuccessful.
There is little the authorities can do against the smugglers, said Hazhar Azawi, Kurdish security director in Ranya. “The smugglers are in Turkey. They (the Iraqis) get a visa to go there, so what can we do?
Lt. Shorsh Ismail, spokesperson for the Ranya police force, said the authorities were aware of the activities of the travel agencies but could not do anything without an order from the Kurdistan Presidency.
Omar, the travel agent, said he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, insisting, “I help people.”
In the nearby city park, Alan Aziz, 24, recalled his own failed attempt to reach Italy. He was on a boat in the Mediterranean when the currents took him to Libya instead. He spent almost a month there before being repatriated.
“I need his help,” he said of a travel agency. “I want to try again for Europe.”
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration