Road to Damascus: the Syrian refugees who want to go home
‘Reverse migration’ from Europe is growing. But it’s a dangerous, difficult journey
A former millionaire shows us what remains of his shop in Damascus. Now a refugee living near Hanover, in Germany, he attends language classes each day with his wife and children. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Reverse migration – efforts by Syrian refugees in Europe to return home – is a growing movement. But those who want to go face legal, practical and financial blocks, and many who make it back face torture and conscription. In a major investigation The Irish Times travels to Germany, Sudan and Syria to meet those looking for a way back. Read the Arabic version here
PART 1: REGRET
The Syrian embassy in Berlin is buzzing. Outside, young men smoke and chatter. “They’re nice; good service, not like it used to be,” says one. “They’re the same shit; they haven’t changed,” another retaliates.
It is a sunny autumn afternoon, and dozens of people flood through side doors, into a main administration room, to sit in front of a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad. Men joke and jostle, and mothers tug small children by the hand, while a wizened grandfather is hoisted down some steps into the lobby.
Behind a desk an embassy official chews nuts and fires off instructions.
“Will they start counting from the time I got my residency permit?” a new arrival asks.
“It’s from the time you left Syria, ” the official barks.
“I left Syria illegally,” the arrival responds, brazenly.
“You need to regularise your status. Press number three, get a photocopy of your passport and wait your turn.”
In 2015 the number of refugees fleeing Syria for Europe increased drastically. The 500,000 Syrian men, women and children who arrived on the continent were escaping a myriad of dangers, including mortars and barrel bombs, snipers who targeted civilians at random, or forced military service for a government they had no trust in.
Every aspect of the dangerous journey, from the barely buoyant boats to Greece, to clashes at the Macedonian border, to lengthy waits for trains in Budapest, was closely covered by the media. Alongside the images of desperation there was much public discussion about what would happen to the newly arrived refugees. How could they be integrated? What type of support should they get? Would the influx of people change European culture?
Two years later a much smaller but still significant phenomenon has emerged: reverse migration.
In four months of research across three continents, we have interviewed dozens of Syrian refugees and former refugees in Germany, the UK, Ireland, Turkey, Sudan and Syria who are considering going home, have attempted some of the journey, or have already returned to what is still a war zone.
We set out to discover why some Syrian refugees are leaving, what routes they are travelling, and what happens to them once they get back home.
In addition to the interviews, we analysed hundreds of posts in online groups by Syrians across Europe who are discussing return. Although this article focuses on refugees leaving Germany, our research shows that Syrians are leaving other European countries, too, including Sweden, Denmark and Austria.
Just two days after we meet, in September, Mustafa is to turn 18, become an adult and lose the chance to rescue his family. He has been living in Stuttgart for two years, but the doe-eyed Syrian teenager, who speaks fluent German, still hasn’t been granted refugee status – something he suspects is a deliberate delay to stop him making an application to bring his parents to Germany. “I lost half my childhood in the war in Syria, and I lost the other half living away from my family,” he says.
Every week his father encourages him to stick it out. “Don’t waste your future,” he barks down a WhatsApp call. But for some of Mustafa’s friends, young and alone in a country more than 2,500km from home, the distance has already been too hard. “I know many who have gone back.”
Reverse refugee migration is not a new concept. Germany has more than 1,000 Rückkehrberatung – or “return counselling” – centres that advise refugees who are considering it. Most return-counselling centres are run independently, although some are tied to the German state. They’re meant to operate separately from the asylum procedure, but sometimes asylum seekers get confused between the two, jeopardising their asylum status.
We speak to one applicant, Obada, whose claim for refugee status was put on hold after he said in an asylum interview that he wanted to go home. Without documents he is unable to leave the country yet has no legal right to work or bring his wife and newborn baby to join him.
Obada and Mustafa’s stories illustrate a common experience. At the height of the conflict, Syrian families with little money would send one family member ahead, usually a husband or son. Once in Europe, that person could apply for family reunification for their spouse, parents, children or siblings, helping the whole family escape.
In Germany this policy changed early last year. Before this Syrians were given asylum, but now they are usually given only temporary leave to stay, meaning they must wait two years to apply for family reunification.
There have also been changes to which family members are eligible to come to Europe. Under-18s are now allowed to send for their parents only, which often means abandoning siblings in a war zone. At least one underage boy who came to Stuttgart has returned to Syria, according to Patricia Söltl, an organiser with a refugee-support group, because of this policy change. “He missed his family so much,” she says.
Without supervision, young Syrians can suffer. Mustafa doesn’t drink, but we learn of another 15-year-old whose father ordered him back to Hama, in Syria, after the teenager developed a drug problem.
For older Syrians in Germany, some of the problems are cultural. Obada articulates a common fear among Syrians: he worries about the effect German culture might have on his children and thinks the German authorities have too much power to take them into care , should cultural differences cause problems at home.
For those who were wealthy in Syria, a fall in status can be hard to accept. In Hanover we meet a former millionaire who owned six properties. “Just the shop ... would have been enough for my family to live like kings,” he says, sadly. The last he saw of his factory and store in the besieged Damascus suburb of Jobar was in a video of a decimated street on Facebook.
His three adult children are settled in Germany, but he dreams of restarting his business at home. “I don’t want to be a burden on the German government,” he says. “If the [Assad] regime is gone I’m 100 percent certain everyone will go back.”
Many Syrian migrants say they experience discrimination and judgment from Europeans. “People’s views of refugees have changed in a bad way,” says a 26-year-old economics graduate from Damascus, the Syrian capital, who now works as a security guard. He tried to board a plane to Lebanon last year but was stopped at Frankfurt Airport for not having a visa. “The stories we hear about Isis, explosions in France, because of this I feel like I’m under suspicion.”
The young man’s uncle has left Europe already; he has been back working in his Damascus electrical shop since mid-2016. “In Germany he felt like he was missing something. He wasn’t himself. He felt like he wouldn’t find the friends he had, he wouldn’t find work. He was completely lost.”
Although some Syrian refugees relinquish their passports to the German government, others are allowed to keep them. One conundrum brought up by several refugees is whether to renew their Syrian passports – at a cost of up to $760, or €640.
Syrians who renew their documents and visit the embassy are, often unknowingly, entering a legal minefield. Both Sabine Lehmann, of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration in Berlin, and a German asylum lawyer who works with refugees admit that when refugees’ statuses come up for renewal, these actions could be a reason to deny their claims.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees says cases are examined individually, but confirms that under the law Syrians lose refugee status if they renew passports or do anything else to place themselves “under the protection of the state whose nationality they hold”.
Yet some refugees say German authorities have asked them to go to the embassy, in order, for example, to register a newborn baby.
Concerns around changing politics are raised by many Syrians we speak to. They say they have little reason to trust any state, and feel safer keeping their options open
These concerns could become especially pertinent if there’s a major policy change in whether Syria is considered a safe country. Already the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, in parliament since September, has called for the repatriation of Germany’s Syrians, saying the war is coming to an end.
Concerns around changing politics are raised by many Syrians we speak to. They say they have little reason to trust any state, and feel safer keeping their options open. “Right now they treat us good here, but in the future we don’t know what will happen,” says one man.
“There’s expectation versus reality,” says Walid Chahrour, a lawyer whose work with BBZ Berlin, a counselling and care centre for young refugees and migrants, has grown from just handling asylum claims to also advising those who want to leave. In 2015, he notes, refugees arrived in an overburdened German system, meaning cramped living conditions and huge delays in processing their applications – very different from what they had anticipated.
“Some Syrians who come to us say in their whole life they’ve only received three letters by post. In four months [here] they’ve received 450 letters, most from the job centre. The tone is threatening. With all these, people start to be scared, and they just can’t deal with it.”
We meet Chahrour in a second-floor office in Berlin. “You will regret it if you go back,” he is warning a refugee in the corridor when we arrive. Last year Chahrour was involved in fighting a seminal case, one of the first taken by Syrian refugees who wanted their documents back so they could leave Germany. The family of three brothers were eventually successful.
One of them, a sweet maker named Mohamed Ma’rouf, had been refused a permanent visa, meaning he couldn’t apply for his family to join him or use his German documents to travel back to them. Three times he tried to get to Sudan – one of the few countries Syrians can enter without a visa – but each time he was stopped at the airport. When the court granted him the return of his documents Ma’rouf moved straight to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, where he began to work.
Months later he had enough money to pay a smuggler $1,250 to move his wife and four young daughters out of East Ghouta, a besieged area east of Damascus, through a tunnel.
“It’s relieving being together again,” Ma’rouf says delightedly when we meet in Sudan in July, 10 days after he was reunited with his children. “When I was in Germany I worried all the time about my family’s safety, but now I know they’re okay.”
PART 2: RETURN
Sengar is on a mission: to rescue his children. As the fighting in Syria got worse they would call him from the city of Deir ez-Zor, saying they were under siege; Isis was nearby; they couldn’t leave their house; they were hungry.
None of the four teenagers, nor their mother, has a passport. Even if they did, there’s no way for them to get to a German embassy, to complete the family-reunification process by which Sengar can bring them to Europe. They can’t even move from street to street, he tells us. There are mines on the road outside.
Still, there are dangers even inside the house. When their home was hit by two rockets Sengar’s son’s face was scarred and his teeth were broken.
Sengar, a 49-year-old with greying hair and a leather jacket, came to Germany in 2015. He went ahead because the family could afford only one passage. “I was running away from one situation to another,” he says now, but he experienced problems as soon as he arrived, including shock at how difficult German is.
Still, he was granted refugee status, and at the beginning of 2017 he was given a grant by German authorities to buy furniture. The money made up his mind for him: why furnish an apartment when he could rescue his children?
We meet on a Berlin road that is nicknamed Arab Street, and is lined with hookah bars and Middle Eastern restaurants. As we speak Sengar uses his lighter, his phone and a sugar dispenser to map out the route he took home on the table in front of him.
First he got a train to Budapest; then he flew to Athens. From there he went to the Greek port city of Thessaloníki, where he got a bus to the Turkish border, then walked until he reached a part that was unguarded. Next he travelled through Turkey. Because the German government was holding his passport he used a forged Syrian passport and a smuggler to get across the Turkish border into Idlib, a city held by the Syrian opposition, which they managed after a long wait and a bribe to the border guards. The trip cost Sengar €2,500, putting him in debt.
Once he was inside Syria the Free Syrian Army opposition told him to turn back. “Don’t go to Deir ez-Zor, because Isis controls it. If they see you coming from Europe they’ll cut your head.”
Eventually Sengar arrived back in Germany. Now he’s in debt and homeless. He’s living off the charity of Berlin-based Syrians who let him sleep in their restaurant and begrudgingly give him food and cigarettes.
“Many people want to go back but need a safe area to be in,” Sengar says. “I went there and tried, but it’s impossible.”
Two years Thessaloníki was a hub for migrants and refugees arriving for the first time in Europe, a point of celebration and a place to co-ordinate your journey onwards. Arrival there meant you had made it across the border and avoided local police carrying out illegal push-backs, detaining and then depositing refugees back into Turkey.
Now Thessaloníki has become a hub for refugees returning to the Middle East. On a Facebook group with tens of thousands of members, Syrians post regularly about the city. “Hey guys, I’m going from Cologne to Thessaloníki next month. If someone wants to join me we can go together,” a recent post reads.
Another family of six going to Turkey ask if anyone will join them. Travelling in groups reduces the individual cost for a smuggler. Some groups are as large as 30 or 40 people.
As many did on the way to Europe, reverse migrants are entrusting their safety to smugglers who often misrepresent the true situation and make it seem easier than it is
Those leaving Germany fly to Thessaloníki with their German travel documents. From there they get a bus to one of the numerous points recommended by smugglers along the Turkish border, and either find a bridge crossing the Maritsa river or contact smugglers permanently stationed there who can take them across on a boat for between €100 and €200 (€85-€170). “Don’t worry, brother: my people sleep at the point,” one smuggler tells us.
As many did on the way to Europe, reverse migrants are entrusting their safety to smugglers who often misrepresent the true situation and make it seem easier than it is. “Smugglers only care about making money,” says one man who travelled from Germany to Turkey to see his wife. “I went 10 days ago, and the [Greek police] caught me, beat me up and threw everything I had in the river.”
He said the border police hurt him so badly they broke two of his teeth and knocked him unconscious.
Once in Turkey, Syrians certain about their decision to leave might sell their German documents to other Syrians for as much as $3,000. The buyer can then use the documents to fly to Germany, before claiming asylum once safely there.
“I’m leaving from Germany to Turkey,” a recent online posting reads. “If you find a lookalike he could take my passport and come back.”
For many Syrians, selling on their European documents allows them to cover the cost of the journey back.
There is theoretically a legal and free route for refugees to return home. When refugees from other countries ask to leave, the International Organisation for Migration will pay for their trip. It even has a “return hotline” – including one for Ireland – and this year set up a specialised website in collaboration with the German government. But Syria is one of only three countries classified as being too dangerous, so returns there are currently on hold. (The others are Libya and Yemen.) Sabine Lehmann, of the International Organisation for Migration in Berlin,says it is carrying out “continuous evaluation” in Syria. “The travel itself must be safe, and the situation there must be safe.”
However, she says she is aware that many Syrians are debating returning among themselves. “You are sensing it everywhere. I am too,” she says. “You need legal ways of migration in both [directions].” She also warns that refugees must be aware of the consequences. “When you leave Germany you legally resign your asylum application,” Lehmann says. “If I return I relinquish that right to asylum” but can lodge another claim.
The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees says it has no way of recording the number of refugees who travel home “independently”. Its organised REAG/GARP return programme won’t send people to Syria, but last year 35 Syrians returned to neighbouring countries through this programme, it says.
Our research suggests the number leaving both for neighbouring countries and for Syria itself is many times that.
Sudan and Iran routes
That it is one of the few places they don’t need a visa for makes Sudan a popular transit country for refugees on their way back to Syria who don’t go through Greece. From Germany, Syrians who still have their passports can fly to Khartoum, and from Khartoum straight to Damascus. During the stopover, some also sell their German documents. “I got a German travel document in Sudan and want to get to Europe,” one online poster comments. “How is the way?”
A few Syrians tell us that Germany’s Syrian embassy is facilitating flights back via Iran. “If you have a Syrian passport you can go to the Syrian embassy in Berlin and say you want to go back to Syria,” one poster advises. “They’ll fly you to Tehran and there you’ll wait for an hour for your plane to Damascus.”
Another refugee says his uncle travelled home that way. Embassy officials cancelled an interview with The Irish Times and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
PART 3: REUNION
Sami thought he had got away with it. The thirtysomething had been living in Germany for three years as a recognised refugee when his mother became seriously ill. Frail and elderly, she would need an operation to save her life. His brothers decided it was his duty, as the youngest son and the only unmarried one, to help her.
Brandishing his Syrian passport so Germany wouldn’t find out he was violating the conditions of his refugee status, Sami boarded a flight to Khartoum and then went to Damascus. He planned to stay less than 20 days – the first period he would spend in Syria since the war began. Still, he took precautions. From abroad, Syrians can pay someone to check whether their name is on a “list”, meaning government officials are looking out for them. Sami didn’t need that; he got a friend to do it for him. When he got the all-clear he thought he was safe.
But things went wrong at the immigration desk at Damascus airport. “You have to wait five minutes,” Sami was told before being pushed into a back room and then a car. It would be more than a month before his mother found out he was still alive. “For one month my family didn’t know anything about me. Even after they went and asked at a police station. They knew that I flew from Sudan to Syria and after that [for] one month no one knew anything,” he says.
For weeks afterwards, Sami, whose name has been changed for his safety, was locked in a cell with dozens of others, including several who had been caught returning from Europe. He estimates it to have measured 3m by 4m, which barely left room to breathe. “For sure they give us food, but it’s little, just to be alive.” Every two hours at night, half the cell’s detainees would stand up to let the others lie down and try to snatch some sleep. The cramps were unbearable.
Sami was released only for torture sessions, when officers would beat him, demanding he give them information about opposition leaders thought to be in Europe – people he didn’t know.
‘We fight all day’
“It’s normal in Syria. No one goes to [the] police without [being tortured]. They don’t care if someone dies . . . Also, you can’t do anything, because nobody knows what happened to you. If someone from outside comes to the police station and asks about you, they say he’s not here . . . Even [if] you die nobody knows.”
Sitting outside a bar in the Bab Touma district of Damascus this autumn, Sami looks malnourished. In the four months after he left Germany he lost 15kg, or nearly 2½ stone. He explains that he wants to tell his story to warn other Syrian refugees in Europe about what could happen to them if they come back.
After a month in the prison cell Sami was sent to the army, despite having completed military service years before. Within days he was sent to an Isis-controlled territory – one of the areas of Syria currently experiencing the most brutal fighting.
The lack of food and care for soldiers means a posting there could be a death sentence, according to Sami. “We fight all the day, and then in the night they give us some bread and some potatoes . . . It’s not really food. No breakfast, no lunch . . . Sometimes we [can’t] find water.”
Three weeks before we meet, and three months after he was enlisted in the army, an Isis bomb detonated near where he was fighting, killing almost everyone with him. Sami can now barely walk. He holds one side of his body rigidly. Later he rolls up his trouser leg to show deep lacerations extending all the way up his body. “I know too many people who were in Europe and came back. They are with me now [on the front lines].”
In Germany, in Syria and across Europe we hear multiple accounts of young men who have disappeared after returning to Syria, and are presumed to be in prison. Some even manage to be reunited with their families before they disappear. But Sami’s story gives a comprehensive account of what happens to some of them. He says women and only sons, who are exempt from military service, might be held for only a few days, but any other men between the ages of 18 and 42 would both be enlisted and come under suspicion.
Another Syrian from Hama says his father, who is above army age, had been detained for nearly three hours at Damascus airport after returning from Sweden. His passport was confiscated so he couldn’t leave Syria again.
“Everyone who left Syria illegally will be taken for political questioning, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying,” the son says. His father was caught for having no exit stamp in his passport. He was questioned about his connections with “enemy countries”, how he got out of Syria, who smuggled him, and who was in control in the country’s north when he passed through.
The father – who remained under investigation – has since been smuggled out to Turkey again. “He will never go back to Syria,” his son says.
For those who cross the Turkish border and re-enter Syria illegally by land, the consequences could be worse. Some of the smugglers along the route to Aleppo are in league with the army, Sami says. If you’re caught you could be sent straight to the military or disappear into prison for years.
Others who manage to reach home are trapped in their houses. Military checkpoints across towns and cities, as well as undercover intelligence, mean it’s impossible to go undetected for long.
Once refugees return to government-held Syria they fall into a system powered by endemic corruption, where a soldier must pay large sums of cash to get a safer posting. “Without money you can do nothing,” Sami says.
‘Don’t ever return’
The government says there are channels by which those who have left can ensure a safe return. In Aleppo, Fadi Ahmad Ismail, the government representative for reconciliation, details the process. He says anyone who fought government forces or even spoke against the Assad regime in the media must contact the ministry for reconciliation and make peace before they return.
So far 300 people have come back to Aleppo from abroad after doing this, he says. Each had to sign paperwork saying he will not act against the state in future. Any who speak out again may face prosecution in a terrorism court.
Although legal expatriates can pay $5,000 to avoid military service after being out of the country for five years, Ismail confirms that refugees aren’t eligible for this. Even if they have previously been in opposition to the government, any eligible male between 18 and 42 must do military service upon returning home, he says.
Across the country it is possible to find people who have come back legally. In Damascus, at the Syrian football cup final in October, Hamo Ahmad bounds through the stadium stalls, shouting an enthusiastic “Guten Tag” at anyone who looks foreign. The 25-year-old arrived back in Syria 20 days earlier, after three years playing with a Frankfurt football club. “I love Deutschland,” he says. “But I missed home.”
Powerful figures from three pillars of Syrian society have issued mixed messages towards the more than five million refugees who fled the country – though the reality at this stage is that most people are related to someone abroad.
In February Mr al-Assad said he recognised that most refugees may want to come back in the future. “This is [a] country to every Syrian,” he said, but he added that what happens next may not be up to him. “It doesn’t matter what I believe. What matters is what the law would say about every person who committed any act against his country.”
A month before his death by landmine in October, the prominent Republican Guard general Issam Zahreddine caused an outcry when he said refugees wouldn’t return if they knew what was good for them. “To those who fled Syria to another country, I beg you don’t ever return, because even if the government forgives you, we will never forgive or forget,” he told state media.
Speaking in his residence in Damascus in November, Syria’s grand mufti, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, a powerful religious leader close to the government, assures us: “The gates are open for everybody.” But he denies the number of refugees in Europe is as high as has been recorded and says they fled only because of abuses by Syrian opposition groups, rather than anything the government did. Hassoun was inclined to believe reports that “226,000 refugees went to Europe in 2016”, but he insists very few of the families are Syrians. “The others have fake passports.”
Syria’s foreign minister declines a request for an interview.
“The entire system of mass detention and torture is still continuing,” says Scott Gilmore, a lawyer from the Center for Justice & Accountability, in the United States, who is investigating war crimes in Syria. “People get routinely stopped at checkpoints, kidnapped . . . There are still forms of political violence, but some [attacks] are common criminality.”
For Sami these warnings come too late. Days after we meet he is to be summoned back to the front lines. His story, told in hushed tones in an open street, where we can watch for eavesdroppers, is underscored by the harsh reality that he doesn’t know whether he’ll survive the rest of the conflict.
He curses himself for re-entering what he describes as “the last war” – the most dangerous period of the fighting so far, as the government tries to retake the areas still out of their control. “I say don’t believe anyone and don’t come,” he urges. “You have to wait a little more time.”
This report was supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund