Syrian refugees discover reality of entering Europe through ‘soft underbelly’
Slim hope of starting a new life even after costly and dangerous sea crossings
Children hold placards depicting young victims of the Syrian conflict, as they take part in a demonstration in front of the parliament in Athens on April 6th, 2013 in solidarity to Syrian refugees who fled the conflict in the country. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
Fadi can count himself lucky, many times over. A young Syrian who fled his native country after deserting the Syrian army, he has had more than his share of escapes but is only too aware that he still has many more hurdles to jump before he reaches his goal: a secure and safe country, far from the war that has torn his country apart.
For Fadi, that place is Germany, where he has relatives, but the problem is that he is now in limbo in Greece, where he is permitted to stay on a six-month humanitarian visa that expires in March.
The 24-year-old Kurd from the northeastern corner of the war-torn country is just one of the 7,500 or so Syrians arrested for illegal entry or stay in Greece last year, in what has been described as the EU’s “soft underbelly”. In 2011, it accounted for about 90 per cent of apprehensions of undocumented migrants in the bloc.
Greece’s Syrian refugees are a small part of a much larger exodus from Syria. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has registered more than 2.1 million Syrian refugees – half of them children – in camps in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Inside Syria, an estimated 6.5 million people are internally displaced.
The EU has taken in about 65,000 Syrians, with most going to Germany and Sweden, a response that one leading human rights group says has “miserably failed” the refugees. “Across the board, European leaders should hang their heads in shame,” Salil Shetty, the head of Amnesty International, said last month.
As Angeliki Dimitriadi, a migrant expert with Athens think tank Eliamep, the Greek government’s dual policy of boosting its border controls and increasing its return programmes has made it increasingly difficult for Syrians to enter the country and apply for asylum, which pushes refugees like Fadi to take increasingly dangerous risks to get into the EU.
Along with a cousin, Ibrahim, and 41 other migrants, most of them compatriots, Fadi was fished out of the short stretch of sea between the Greek Aegean island of Lesvos and the Turkish coast last August. Like thousands of others who make the same journey, they paid a trafficker the going rate of €1,500 to make the night-time sea crossing, which at its shortest distance is 10km. But as they were on the boat for more than two hours, the point of departure was most likely from further south, closer to the Turkish city of Izmir, through which they had been taken, crowded into a minibus, on a 12-hour non-stop journey from Istanbul.
“We started our trip at about 2am, on an eight metre inflatable nylon boat. Apart from some boys who could swim, Ibrahim and I had no lifejackets, which the other passengers had bought from the trafficker. We couldn’t afford them,” he recalls, chain smoking, as he surveys the Athens skyline from a hill next to the Acropolis.
“All the children – many of them infants – and women sat in the middle, for their own safety, while all the men and boys sat around them. It was pitch dark so we couldn’t even see each other. We were terrified. The women and children were crying. I swear they were the worst few hours of my life. It was like a nightmare, a death trip,” he recounts.