Listen to this article
When a slight woman with a wrinkle-lined face tried to escape from Syria into Turkey last month, smugglers locked her family of seven in a room and beat her because she said she could pay no more.
Um Salem told her sons to give the smugglers the last $100 the family possessed, scared that the extortion would turn into something much worse. “I was afraid for my daughter-in-law and the girls,” she says. “I was afraid they would hurt them.”
Hers is an increasingly common story. Across countries and continents, criminal gangs are branching out from smuggling people over borders into human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
For this year’s seasonal appeal, the Financial Times is working in partnership with Stop The Traffik, an organisation that raises awareness about human trafficking, a crime that involves forcing or duping people into prostitution, forced labour or other abuse.
Thousands of miles away from Syria, on another of the world’s most sensitive frontiers — Mexico and the US — Jesús Pinos went through a similar ordeal to Um Salem.
Travelling from the poor southern state of Oaxaca with three friends, the 30-year-old called a number for a “coyote”, a guide to escort would-be migrants over what locals call “the line”.
Mr Pinos never made it to the US; instead he was made prisoner on the border’s Mexican side.
A taxi sent by the coyote took the four men from the bus station to a remote house where an armed guard manned the door. Some 20 people were held in four rooms and a basement. The captives slept without blankets on the floor and were charged for the food they ate, which they had to cook themselves.
They were also forced to tell their families they were in the US and ask for $6,000 in ransom money, Mr Pinos recalls, speaking from a migrant shelter in Tijuana. He was lucky; after two weeks, he took advantage of a moment of carelessness by the guard and slipped out.
Other people on dangerous borders have endured more tragic fates. This year Malaysian police uncovered more than 160 bodies in camps on the border with Thailand. Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar — seeking to reach Malaysia, Indonesia or beyond — have long been held for ransom in such open air prisons, although a recent crackdown has shut many of them down.
Their plight highlights how gangs preying on the record number of migrants are blurring the lines between people smuggling, human trafficking and other crimes, whether on the Syrian-Turkish border, the US-Mexican frontier or the road from Myanmar.
“Express kidnappings are more profitable and less exposed than drugs because people do not report this out of fear their families will be targeted,” says Gabriela Cortés, a Mexican activist, in a reference to abductions for relatively low ransoms that affect large numbers of vulnerable people. “It is the new human trafficking.”
Tighter borders are often also a boon for the gangs that profit from the travails of desperate migrants.
The cost of crossing the Syrian-Turkish border has soared as Ankara accedes to international pressure to secure its frontier from the jihadis of Isis and hold back the growing tide of refugees heading to Europe.
Before Turkey imposed border controls last July, the price was the equivalent of $5 a person. By last month, families were spending between $400 and $1,000, depending on their size, just to cross.
After selling the family’s furniture, a battered motorbike and her husband’s electrical tools, Um Abdo, a 30-year-old, thought her seven-strong family had raised enough funds to last a few months in Turkey. Instead, they ended up penniless in Turkey’s border city of Antakya after smugglers took them on a six-hour journey dodging border patrols.
“We paid everything we had just so we could walk over a border,” she says.
Refugees say they are promised the entire journey will cost a hundred dollars or so, but as they are moved between smugglers the men threaten to abandon them or call border patrols if they do not pay more.
“Every village we passed through, the smugglers would ask for another $100,” recalls Abu Hamed, who fled with his wife and children from Deir Ezzor, an Isis-controlled province in Syria. “We passed through three villages to cross. We had to do it at night, like we were doing the journey to Europe.”
In Mexico, Alexis López, a baby-faced 19-year-old from the southern state of Chiapas, has a similar story. He had to “pay the mafia” — the coyotes — three times in his abortive bid to cross to the US. He was also offered the chance to be a mule, taking drugs over the border. “I said no, but I was afraid. Some people are forced to,” he says. “The [coyotes] are armed. They could kidnap you.”
Migrants along the well-trodden route north along the Gulf of Mexico are accustomed to paying off drugs cartels for freedom of passage long before they get to the border. But after a failed “war on drugs” that increased already high levels of violence, they can now also expect everything from robbery, kidnapping and extortion to forced labour and sex slavery.
Things are no better to the south of Mexico. Father Heyman Vázquez runs a migrant shelter near the Guatemala border. He sees little hope of any reduction in the rising tide of trafficking, because of the sheer number of migrants who provide fodder for the trade. It is a story that resonates across the world.
“We get migrants coming through who tell us they were working for no pay, or for as little as $12 a month, as well as women who have escaped from being sold [into prostitution],” Father Vázquez mournfully observes. “But they say they will try again.”
Additional reporting by Michael Peel
To find out more about the FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner, visit Stop the Traffik