The perilous journey of a Syrian migrant to Europe
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.