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Smugglers Dupe Iraqi Refugees as Millions Flee for Safety

In the depths of despair, Suzan doused herself and her 14-year-old daughter with gasoline and prepared to set them both on fire.

The Iraqi refugee's dream of reaching Europe was dead. Suzan, a hairstylist, had fled her homeland months earlier under threat from Islamic extremists and paid a smuggler $18,000 to sneak her and her daughter Aya from Turkey to Greece. But when they reached Edirne, near the Greek border, the smuggler vanished.

Suzan returned to Istanbul, where she feared the only fate for her and Aya was prostitution.

"My dream was like a sand castle taken down by a big wave," Suzan said. "I did not want to see the day when me or my daughter are forced to leave the right path."

Only Aya's last-minute pleas stopped her from lighting them both ablaze. "Please, mama, I kiss your feet, don't do it," Aya begged.

"She was in my arms, soaked with gasoline and shivering from fright ... I was so very desperate, and there was no way out," Suzan recounted, crying at the memory and holding Aya. She spoke to The Associated Press on condition her full name not be used because she fears deportation by Turkish authorities.

The desperation of Iraqi refugees appears to be fueling an increase in illegal migration into Europe — and in the activities of smugglers who exploit these refugees.

On June 23, the law enforcement agency Europol carried out what it called one of the biggest coordinated sweeps against smuggler networks, arresting 75 people in nine European countries. The sweep was code-named "Operation Baghdad," a nod to the new importance of Iraq as a source of migrants. An unspecified number of both the smugglers and the migrants were Iraqi.

While it's hard to gauge the extent of illegal immigration, Europol says asylum applications filed in European countries are an indirect indicator. Such applications increased 10 percent between mid-2006 and mid-2007. The situation has been exploited by organized crime groups, Europol said in a March report.

Up to 2.5 million Iraqis have fled their country over the past five years. Most are in neighboring Syria, Jordan and Turkey, where their status is uncertain, they are barred from working and their money is running out. So many are now trying to get into Europe.

A tiny portion of these Iraqi refugees can resettle legally in Europe or the United States. Sweden has given shelter to about 40,000 Iraqis since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq — far more than any other Western country. And after a slow start, U.S. authorities said last month that they had taken in around 5,800 Iraqis so far this fiscal year.

But others have little hope. Even those who have gained legal status in Syria, Jordan or Turkey are usually not allowed to work, meaning they must find jobs under the table or live off rapidly dwindling funds brought from Iraq.

Some, like Suzan, lose hope in the complicated process of applying for refugee status and resettlement abroad. Suzan's application to the U.N. refugee agency was rejected because Turkey was her second country of arrival. Refugees are supposed to apply for status in the first country they arrive in, under most circumstances.

Suzan and Aya now rent a cinderblock apartment with broken windows and cracked walls for $200 a month, and she washes dishes for about $8 a day in Istanbul.

Turkey is a frequent launching point for illegal migrants to Europe, due to its borders with Greece, which has a huge coastal area and about 2,000 Aegean islands that allow for easier entry. More than 112,000 migrants were caught sneaking into Greece last year, including 12,945 Iraqis, the second largest group after Albanians. Nearly 2,000 Iraqis were caught by Greek authorities in the first three months of this year.

Ahmad Raouf, a 32-year-old Iraqi, is one of those who successfully made it — reaching Sweden in March. Raouf paid a trafficker $16,000 to take him to Stockholm via Turkey and Greece less than two months ago. The smuggler gave him a fake passport, and soon after Raouf arrived in Sweden, he turned himself in, hoping for political asylum.

"Not all the smugglers are bad," Raouf said in a telephone interview from Stockholm. "He was very nice to me ... and was with me the whole trip and did not take a penny until I arrived."

But for others, the smuggling attempt can lead to disaster.

A 35-year-old Iraqi widow, who asked to be identified only by her last name, Abdul-Fattah, said she fled Baghdad with her two children in 2005 after her husband was killed by Shiite militiamen. She applied to the U.N. refugee agency in Syria for resettlement more than a year ago but said she never heard back.

So Abdul-Fattah sold all her belongings and borrowed money from friends to pay $15,000 to an Iraqi smuggler who promised to get her and her children to Belgium from Syria.

Earlier this year, the smuggler gave her tickets and fake visas to the Central African Republic instead. After landing in the capital Bangui, Abdul-Fattah said she was detained by police and sexually harassed.

"I have never been so humiliated or touched that way," Abdul-Fattah sobbed in a telephone interview. She and her children were deported to Libya, then to Damascus.

She has considered putting her children up for adoption because she can no longer provide for them.

"Vulnerable and devastated are just words. What I feel is far worse," she said. "My husband is gone as well as my home, and now my money."

Back in Damascus, with no money and no job, she and her children sleep on the floor in the basement of a friend's building and live off charity from the Iraqi community.

"I wasn't stupid when I gave away the money, I was just sinking in a sea of fear and desperation," she said. "He (the smuggler) duped me with his promises of living an easy life in Europe. I wish someone had chopped off my hands before I handed him the money."

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