The perilous journey of a Syrian migrant to Europe

Friday 03/07/2015
At the port of Tripoli, the first stop in a long journey

BEIRUT - Mahmoud’s parents were about to receive con­dolences for their son’s demise when he called from Italy to say that he was alive. The 16-year-old boy from Aleppo was among the few survivors of a boat that capsized in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Italian territory from Libya. Two of his two uncles, a cousin and his grandmother, died in the treach­erous waters.
Oum Samer sold all her belong­ings and her house in rural Damas­cus after her husband was killed two years ago in the Syrian war and embarked on the perilous journey to Europe with her two sons.
Hossein, 17, left his bombed-out village in the outskirts of Damas­cus a year ago with his eyes set on Germany, which he reached after al­most two months of hardship, trek­king across Eastern Europe, cross­ing mountains and ravines, sleeping in the woods and detained in Euro­pean prisons.
These desperate Syrians and others fleeing the devastating civil war, now in its fifth year, make up the largest category of illegal immi­grants seeking to reach Europe over the last two years, according to the International Organisation of Migra­tion (IOM). The dangers of the jour­ney and the risk of being expelled and turned back did not stem the inflow.
Why do Syrians risk all in their bid to reach Europe?
After being harassed at Syrian Army checkpoints and arrested for three days during which he was beaten and humiliated, Hossein decided to leave, an option he had resisted for months. “I was against the idea of living as a refugee in any country but after the arrest and hu­miliation I suffered for no reason, I opted to leave despite the dangers,” he said in a Skype interview with The Arab Weekly from a refugee shelter in Germany.
The journey started in Istanbul, a hub for human traffickers, where Hossein’s father negotiated his trav­el cost and itinerary. “My father re­jected the option of travelling by sea because of the high risks involved and settled for the land route de­spite the tremendous hardship it entailed,” Hossein said.
Hossein was the youngest in a group of 35 Syrians, which includ­ed medical doctors and engineers. From Edirne, on Turkey’s border with Greece, the group travelled by foot, lorries and trains. After riding in a crammed and locked van with no windows, walking for three days in a forest and crossing a river in an inflatable dinghy, the company reached Greece, only to be arrested by police.
Hossein and his companions spent 25 days in Greek prisons be­fore they were given laissez-passer documents as refugees and re­leased. “We were lucky because we were not returned to Turkey,” he said. “Others were simply put in buses and turned back.”
From Greece, an Afghani smug­gler accompanied the group to Mac­edonia, then Serbia and Hungary. “We walked for ten hours to reach the Macedonian border where a smuggler was supposed to pick us up with his car. But when we got there, there was no sign of him,” Hossein said. “We waited for four days, sleeping in the woods, under the rain and in the cold, until the guy finally arrived.”
They were arrested by Macedoni­an police as they got off a train near the Serbian border. “Here again, we were lucky because we were not ex­pelled. They let us go and the police actually drove us to the frontier,” Hossein said.
“In Serbia, we were caught twice by police, expelled back to Macedo­nia, but we kept on trying until they allowed us in and let us get to the Hungarian border.”
The smuggler left the group when it crossed into Hungary. Hos­sein recalls with bitterness hu­miliating treatment by Hungarian police. “They looked at us with dis­gust, as if we were rubbish,” he said. “They even placed plastic bags on the seats of the police van before letting us in.”
After days in a Hungarian prison, the group was dropped at the Aus­trian border, where another smug­gler took them to Germany. Hossein is staying in a shelter for juveniles in a small town near Düsseldorf. He is learning German so he can enroll in school. “I want to study, get a uni­versity degree and then go back to Syria when the war is over. I have no intention to spend the rest of my life in this country. Being away from my family is very difficult,” he said.
It took Hossein more than 50 days and about $8,000 to get to Germa­ny. Others were not been as lucky. Mahmoud, Bassam and Firas were three youngsters who participated in anti-regime demonstrations in Raqqa, east of Aleppo. Threatened by the regime and the Islamic State (ISIS), which later seized control of the city, the young men set out on the journey to Europe via Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
“In Tunisia, we were staying in a house at the border, waiting to cross into Libya, when police raided our hideout. Bassam was hit by a speed­ing police car as he tried to escape and died in hospital,” Firas said in a Skype interview from a refugee shelter in Holland.
Mahmoud and Firas continued the journey by sea in a rickety boat, which went down off the Italian coast after three days at sea. Some 120 people drowned, including Mahmoud. Firas was among 20 sur­vivors. More than 2,600 migrants have died and more than 100,000 have been rescued at sea since the beginning of 2015, according to fig­ures published by the IOM.
Nonetheless, the inflow of mi­grants looking for freedom and safety continues unabated and is not expected to decline as long as the region is being swept by devas­tating conflicts.