Into the Mild: Refugees Are Being Sold Fake Life Jackets? That's Just the Beginning

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Lesbos Island, Greece

By now you’ve likely heard the news that refugees coming to Greece are being sold fake life jackets.

I’ve personally seen this, and it’s every bit as despicable as your gut reaction tells you it is. Unfortunately, the life jackets are the tip of the iceburg. If smugglers sell water-absorbent life jackets for only 45 euro (roughly 45 U.S. dollars), imagine what they’ll do for real money.

I hate writing this, but the media seems to ignore everything except the headline-grabbing life jackets. Someone has to tell it…

Bademli, Turkey and Lesbos, Greece are separated by less than 10 kilometers. The Aegean Sea lies between the two, with generally calm water and a mild climate. This short trip between Turkey and the European Union has been the most common route into Europe for refugees, with over 500,000 refugees arriving on Lesbos in 2015. A raft can make the trip in less than two hours on a clear day.

The trip is almost always done on a dinghy boat. These are made of rubber and will pop like a balloon if they hit a rock. These inflatable boats come from China and cost smugglers 1,200 euros. An average of 40-60 refugees are packed into each raft. 40-60 people on any of these rafts is far beyond any safe limit, with refugees sitting in the middle and hanging off the sides of the raft. Most arrive to Greece with only what fits in their pockets, as any bags on the raft with them are tossed into the sea to make room for more people. On top of all of this, refugees are told to steer the ship themselves. The price for all of this? 1,000 euros each.

The dinghy boat being towed by the Coast Guard was originally filled with roughly 50 people.
  • The dinghy boat being towed by the Coast Guard was originally filled with roughly 50 people.

The tickets are so expensive that many refugees wait in Turkey for up to a year, working under the table until saving enough money to be smuggled. This makes them easy targets for gangs and human traffickers. Or sweatshops. Sweatshops where they make fake life jackets. Once you’re able to save 1,000 euro, you are able to be smuggled into Europe with only the clothes on your back.

After working long enough to earn the 1,000 euros, refugees are in for another surprise. Prior to departure they’re told that they are required to buy life jackets. The life jackets cost 45 euros each and are not included in the original 1,000 they are paying for the short boat ride. And they are fake. All of them. I’ve been on the island for one month and I have seen exactly one real life jacket. They are usually an orange shell that is stuffed with padded foam that gives them the look of safety, but in reality absorbs water and will make the wearer sink faster. Often, red or blue fake life jackets with Yamaha logos are sold for even more money, but packed with the same material.

This water-absorbent material is stuffed inside the fake life jackets
  • This water-absorbent material is stuffed inside the fake life jackets

Let’s review: smugglers charge each refugee almost enough to pay for the entire unsafe raft, fill the raft well past its maximum capacity, force them to buy water-absorbent life jackets, throw away their possessions, then send the of them into choppy waters without a map or driver. And they profit 50,000 euros for each boat.

For the year, refugees paid an estimated $500,000,000 to be smuggled 10 kilometers on rubber boats.

If there’s a hell, it will be full of Turkish smugglers.

Lesbos Island's Life Jacket Graveyard, where tens of thousands of fake life jackets are dumped.
  • Lesbos Island's Life Jacket Graveyard, where tens of thousands of fake life jackets are dumped.

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