As the Lale-1 sailed down the Bosporus through Istanbul earlier this month, it looked like any other down-at-heel ship passing through one of the world's busiest waterways.
But Turkish coast guards, who were suspicious, stopped the freighter and discovered nearly 500 human migrants crammed into the hold. The Lale-1 was heading for Italy with an illegal cargo in search of a better life.
A centuries-old hub of international commerce, Istanbul is now an international center and staging area for human smuggling. It is a multibillion-dollar business run by highly organized criminal gangs - there are an estimated 200 in Istanbul alone. Meanwhile, Turkish authorities are struggling to cope with the human tide.
On the Lale-1 was 23-year-old Seyfullah. He had hoped to join his elder brother Hasan in England. Hasan was smuggled out of Turkey two years ago, and he now works illegally as a waiter in London, sending money back to his family every month.
Seyfullah says he paid more than $2,000 to clamber aboard the aging, body-packed freighter in the middle of the night.
"There was a lot of stress, there wasn't enough room," he recalls. "We thought the ship would save us from poverty ... because we were going to Europe."
After the coast guard stopped the Lale-1, the human cargo that emerged from the hold was a migrant diaspora - Kurds from Turkey, Iraqis and Afghans, Ethiopians, and Palestinians. The ship was never designed to carry so many people.
The Turkish authorities released their own citizens without charge, and deported the foreigners. Authorities say the number of cases they have to deal with are stretching resources to the limit.
"We're spending vast amounts of money every year to try to tackle this problem," says Orgun Aksu, a director of security in Istanbul. "It's a huge burden on Turkey."
Where there's a will ...
There are many routes to Europe, and none of them are without risk. Some would-be migrants are smuggled onto rusting cargo ships bound for Greece or Italy, while others try their luck under cover of night along Turkey's long land border with Greece and Bulgaria. For those with more money to spare, a plane ticket to the Balkans, a fake visa, and a new identity can be bought in less than 24 hours.
In cheap hotels and travel agencies in Istanbul's inner-city neighborhoods, thousands of dollars change hands every night as gangs from Pakistan and Iran compete for business with the Russian mafia and the Turkish underworld.
"You can trust about half the smugglers," says Ali, an Iranian who is looking for a way out of Istanbul. "The other half will take your money and abandon you as soon as they can."
In illegal global trade, human trafficking yields staggering profits - second only to drug smuggling. It is now estimated to be worth at least $6 billion a year. Corruption is rampant, and the gangs wield enormous economic power. From policemen to politicians, from the customs to the coast guard, everyone has their price.
Turkey's geographical position lends itself to this booming business. Its eastern borders are porous. Westward traffic arrives from the vast Asian land mass, which extends from China, through India and Iran. Turkey's Aegean coast is just miles from the Greek islands, their lights flickering in the darkness. To the west is the European Union.
"I don't want to be rich. I just want to live a normal life," Ali says. "There are thousands of people like me in this city, waiting for their chance."
On Tuesday, European justice ministers agreed on a penalty of at least eight years in prison for people caught smuggling or housing illegal migrants. Egged on by Europe, the Turkish authorities are trying to crack down on the smuggling trade. Since 1995, an estimated 250,000 illegal migrants have been caught on Turkish soil. In 1999 alone the figure was nearly 50,000. Last year that number almost doubled.
Many people have been captured more than once by the authorities. When they are released or deported, they try to emigrate again and again until they reach the promised land of Europe. No one really knows how many people slip through the net.
In one way or another, the problem will likely worsen as long as inequality in the global economy is so striking. TV images of Western affluence are fed into huts and shanties around the world, prompting the have-nots to take to the road.
Temptations outweigh danger
Often these journeys end in tragedy. Early this year about 50 Asian migrants, many of them from Pakistan and Bangladesh, are believed to have drowned when their ship lost power during a storm and was dashed against the rocks on Turkey's Mediterranean coast.
Nevertheless, most migrants say the risks are outweighed by the potential rewards. Europe can try to stem the human tide with new regulations and better cross-border cooperation, but it can't plug every hole. For people on the outside looking in, the temptations are too great.
In a small village in southeastern Turkey, Seyfullah has returned to his parents and nine siblings, scraping a living off the land and dreaming of a better future. "If I had a job I wouldn't leave," he says, "but if I could find a safer route, I would try again. If people could see the way we live here, they would understand why we do it."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor