HANKS to history and geography, Turkey serves as a way-station between continents and cultures. But not all the people who transit through that country see it in such a romantic way.
Take Mohammed Homadu, a young Somali who fled a homeland ravaged by Islamist insurgency. He paid $230 to a smuggler who promised to get him to Greece. After three harrowing weeks on a ramshackle boat, he and 72 fellow Africans were dumped in the sea by their captain off Turkey’s Aegean coast. “We were rescued by Turkish fishermen,” says Mr Homadu, who now earns $4 per day doing odd jobs in Istanbul. “But four of my friends, they drown.”
Wedged between Europe and Asia, Turkey serves as a big transit route for people-smuggling. It also serves the darker business of bringing sex workers westwards from the ex-Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Tens of thousands of illegal migrants are thought to cross Turkey every year. And some have it worse than Mr Homadu. Last month 14 illegal migrants, mostly Pakistanis, suffocated in the back of a lorry taking them to Greece. The bodies were left near Istanbul, giving police (see picture) a grisly forensic task.
There is pressure on Turkey, an aspiring European Union member, to curb the twin evils of smuggling and trafficking. Results are mixed. The harsh terrain dividing Turkey from Iran and Iraq (from where most illegal migrants sneak in) is hard to control; so too is corruption.
Western governments say Turkish practice is haphazard, letting some illegal entrants in while using arbitrary force to keep others out. In April four people drowned after Turkish police allegedly pushed a group of refugees into a river and made them swim back towards Iraq. The incident (corroborated by witnesses) prompted a harsh rebuke from the United Nations refugee agency; Turkey denies any wrongdoing.
Police in Istanbul have been accused of detaining and beating illegal migrants, especially those with black skins. Some of them are forced by police to do heavy manual jobs, says Ozlem Dalkiran, who runs an EU-funded project for refugees. As for trafficking, the picture is brighter. Recent data suggest a drop in the number of foreigners trafficked to Turkey to provide sex, says Maurizio Busatti of the International Organisation for Migration. The number of victims identified by Turkish officials fell from 246 women in 2006 to 148 last year. Over the same period, the number of convictions of suspected traffickers quadrupled.
The authorities have used television ads to challenge the macho Turkish myth that sex workers “ask for it and want it”. “Did you know that over half of trafficked women are mothers too?” asks one spot. Having been ensnared by talk of work as “fashion models” or “dancers”, a growing number of such women are rescued by semi-chivalrous male customers, who alert the police. Customers, says Mr Busatti, are not just part of the problem, but also part of the solution.