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VICE News

Syrian Refugees Turn to Europe—and Human Smugglers

“I’m not a smuggler,” a man who called himself Abu Khaled said through a crackly speakerphone, “but I can take you to Europe, for a price.”

by Mat Nashed
Dec 10 2013, 9:40pm

I sat silently next to Abdul, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee. We were in my home in Istanbul, and I listened as Abdul talked to a recruiter for a human smuggling network that operates in Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast.

“We go by sea,” said Abu Khaled. “We load cargo trucks on ships heading to Italy each week, and before they board, we hide two people in a shipping container.”

According to an estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 7,000 people flee Syria each day. While the humanitarian toll of the conflict is most acute in deaths—about 5,000 people die each month—the refugee crisis is becoming a more pressing international concern.

For the most part Syrians have fled to neighboring countries such as Lebanon (1,000,000 refugees), Turkey (700,000), and Jordan, (560,000) but with a refusal to offer permanent settlement to refugees, Syrians are barred from legally beginning a new life in their host communities and often languish for years in refugee camps.

As Syria’s neighbors have become increasingly unable to cope with declining humanitarian and political conditions in refugee camps, many Syrians have urgently visited European consulates to request protection.

But European countries have been slow to implement a resettlement strategy, which has awarded smugglers mightily, says activists and NGOs.

Dr. George Joseph, the representative for Caritas Sweden, an international non-government organization (NGO) campaigning for migrant rights, says there has to be a legal way permitting civilians to escape persecution. And though there has been discussion to provide humanitarian visas or remove visa restrictions for victims of war, the agenda to police European borders has stifled any political desire to endorse either proposal.

“If the EU doesn’t want to award international smuggling, and have people losing their lives in the process, then there has to be legal ways not to criminalize those fleeing to Europe,” said Dr. Joseph.

Sweden has been the only country to authorize permanent residence to Syrians. Attaining permanent residence is substantial because it permits family reunification, a policy allowing refugees to bring their families over from Syria and neighboring countries. However, reaching Sweden remains a precarious obstacle.

Meanwhile, Germany has provided the second-largest humanitarian response by offering two years residence to 5,000 Syrians.

“This is a drop in the ocean,” said Dr. Joseph. “And though one life saved is one life saved, civil society needs a better understanding of the crisis to campaign for a substantial solution.”

Furthermore, temporary residence prohibits any legal channel for family reunification. Stefan Kessler, the policy and advocacy officer for the Europa Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international Catholic NGO supporting refugee’s worldwide, describes the obstacles facing Syrians in Germany.

“Imagine you are a Syrian man who is already in Germany,” said Mr. Kessler. “Imagine you want to bring all of your family out of Syria. You want to unite with them. But at the moment, it’s nearly impossible. So what can you do besides rely on smugglers?”

Relying on smugglers is precisely what Ali, a Syrian Palestinian, was forced to do. Ali was told he would be placed on a cargo ship heading to Greece. But after giving up his money, he was placed on an inflated raft with 25 others.

“He took $2,500 from me and left us to die,” said Ali. “But we didn’t. I don’t know how we made it but we made it.”

From Greece, Ali paid another smuggler $5,500 for both a flight ticket and a passport, and from there, he eventually made it to Sweden.

According to the Dublin II Regulation, an EU law enacted in 2003, asylum seekers must apply for refuge in the first country they enter and that country is responsible for making an asylum decision even if the asylum seeker ends up in another EU country. With Italy, Greece, and Spain located on the EU’s southern exterior, those nations have long been reluctant to absorb high numbers of asylum seekers.

In Italy and Greece, there are no coherent strategies designed on a national level to assist refugees. This leaves many to precariously locate irregular housing and work on their own. It’s also common for unaccompanied minors and irregular migrants to suffer from excessive police force before being detained in unhygienic centers for months at a time, according to Kessler.

Moreover, not only do these countries have the lowest capacity to accommodate refugees, but they also have some of the lowest approval rates for granting asylum. Consequently, national border guards have evaded registering Syrians and encouraged thousands to proceed to other countries. And for people fleeing war, the unintended consequences of xenophobia has helped many avoid the grim asylum procedures of the Mediterranean. But as Syrians chase a new beginning, smugglers readily take advantage.

“Believe me, I’m not a smuggler,” Abu Khaled reiterated over the phone as I listened on. “It’s my nephews business, not mine. But for 6,500 euros, I can take you to Europe. And believe me, that’s a small price for a new beginning.”

However, this is a price many are unable to afford.

Omar, a 26-year-old old Syrian living in the Turkish province of Antackya, wishes he could afford the risk. “I would go tomorrow if I could,” Omar told me by phone. “But I can’t. I’ll never be able to collect that much money.”

With Syrians fleeing the crisis in Egypt, Lebanon on the verge of conflict, Jordan ill-equipped to assist any longer, and Turkey stretching its capacity to unprecedented limits, a larger scale resettlement strategy would seem imperative. However, this response is highly unlikely.

“Can you imagine if 27 or 28 States took 3,000 or 4,000 people,” said Dr. Joseph. “This isn’t some fancy dream, it can be a reality if there is a political will, but we can’t wait any longer. We have to do it now.”

“The hope isn’t great,” said Mr. Kessler. “And to make matters worse, many member states have already complained about having too many refugees on their territory.”

According to UNHCR, only 12 members of the EU offer resettlement today, yet their efforts comprise less than 8 percent of the yearly resettlement spaces offered worldwide.

During this century’s Iraq war resettlement strategies weren’t much better. According to a report done by the International Catholic Migration Committee in 2010, 12 countries resettled 100 refugees each in 2007.

“After my house in Yarmouk was bombed, I had no choice but to flee,” said Ali. “I sold my car, all of my belongings, and spent our family’s savings.”

And though Ali made it, many others have died trying. On October 11, a boat carrying a group of Syrians sank off the coast of Alexandria leading to death of 12 people. Yet though Ali’s destiny was different, he wonders about the fate of his family if he had died.

Today, Ali longs for his family who are due to resettle in less than two months. And though he waits, he realizes hope for tomorrow.

“I’m so grateful,” he says. “I’m so grateful my children will have a new beginning.”