​"Ghost ships" offer Syrians dangerous way to escape war

ISTANBUL -- So desperate are Syrians to flee the war that they are jamming rickety boats, known as ghost ships bound for Europe. The journey-- in the Mediterranean sea-- is perilous. On Wednesday, the United Nations refugee agency said more than 300 people died attempting a similar crossing from Africa.

The ghost ships both set off from the Turkish port of Mersin. They were rusted freighters bought cheaply by the smugglers, who made millions of dollars stuffing the holds with desperate Syrians, and then leaving the ships on autopilot off the Italian coast.

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A view of the conditions inside a vessel transporting refugees to Europe
CBS News

In ports like Mersin, the smugglers' human cargo is ferried out to larger ships waiting off shore. The men, women and children pay around $5,000 dollars a head - for a treacherous journey - and the hope of a better life in Europe.

A man we met named Mohammed fled Syria a year ago and now works for a smuggler in Istanbul. He agreed to talk to us about the dangers of trying to cross to Europe in a smuggler's boat, but only if we hid his identity.

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Mohammed, a man who takes part in the business of smuggling refugees on boats
CBS News

"It's dangerous and frightening," he told me. "There are fights over food and water, and when the smugglers leave the boat on autopilot it could run aground."

Mohammed says the smugglers don't care about the people they're smuggling, "they're traders in human lives," he told me.

Millions of Syrians have fled to neighboring countries like Turkey - where many live in limbo - without identity documents or any chance of returning home.

Rama is a 24-year-old from northern Syria who arrived in Istanbul a month ago after her parents paid smugglers to get her across the border to Turkey.

"They think it will be more safe for me," Rama told me.

Now she's hoping a different group of smugglers will get her to Norway. Last year 3,000 people died trying to get to Europe by boat - a statistic Rama says she's aware of.

"I've heard about this and it's very sad," Rama said. "The misery for the Syrian, but it's the only way."

The smuggling trade is lucrative, and it's well-organized. There's one neighborhood in Istanbul that is notorious for its smuggling gangs. Some of them even advertise their services on social media. And many of the smuggling kingpins are actually Iraqis who, just a few years ago, were helping people flee Iraq during that country's civil war.