This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
When British Prime Minister David Cameron was trying to convince parliament to bomb Syria after the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, he said, “By any standards, this is a humanitarian catastrophe… Doing nothing is a choice. It's a choice with consequences.” Weirdly, his call to do “something” about the humanitarian disaster didn’t extend to accepting Syrian refugees into the UK.
Until January, that is, when the combined do-gooding pressure of coalition partner Nick Clegg and various civil society groups convinced Cameron to resettle a whole 500 of them, despite the objections of Home Secretary Theresa May. "Sadly we cannot provide safety for everyone who needs it, but we can reach out to some of those who need it most," said Clegg when the resettlement plan was announced. “We are one of the most open hearted countries in the world, and I believe we have a moral responsibility to help.”
Sadly, Bassel (not his real name) — a Syrian refugee I spoke to — has found Britain’s “open heart” to be a little cold. “I thought this was the country of freedom, where they help refugees… then I came and I was shocked,” he said. He spoke to me from one of the UK’s immigration removal centers, where he has now been detained for over a month. “The only reason I wanted to come to the UK is that my brother and sister are here. I came to be reunited with the other part of my family. Isn’t it my right, to be with my family?" he said. "They told me it would be a fast procedure, but I'm still waiting.”
Waiting is all he can do. Waiting for lunch, waiting for a phone call from his brother or his caseworker, waiting for his anti-depressants, waiting for his room to be locked at 8:30 PM every evening. “Sometimes I read, but most of the time I don’t feel like doing much,” he says. The practice of detaining asylum seekers for administrative purposes could lead to them spending anything from a few weeks to years in detention. The majority tend to be held for less than two months, but it's not uncommon for detentions to span between two and six months, and there's no time limit restricting how long asylum seekers can be kept in detention facilities.
March 15 marked three years since the first peaceful demonstrations broke out in Syria, and were subsequently met with a brutal government crackdown. The war has since claimed close to 150,000 lives.
There are now 2.5 million Syrian refugees — the vast majority of them remaining in neighboring countries, and often living in dire conditions. To date, only a trickle (around 3,500) have made it to the UK, and Europe as a whole is only resettling around 0.6 percent, with Germany offering up the most places (10,000). The UK government has committed £600 million ($990 million) in funding to the region, but countries like Lebanon and Jordan are under extreme economic and political strain.
“I was ashamed to tell my mother and father that I was detained here," says Bassel. "I’d been talking to them about freedom, telling them that they should try to come no matter what. I came without any crime, fled from the war to join my family and I’ve been detained. It really looks like a prison. There are officers. I was shocked."
It’s not the first time he’s been in detention. Back in Syria, Bassel was thrown in jail twice. The first time he was stopped at a government checkpoint and arrested for being in the company of people on the wanted list. He was detained and interrogated for two days. “I was in a room with 60 other people. There was no place to sleep; we could only stand or sit.” The second time, he was kidnapped by what he believes was an Islamist group, and then released without any questioning. He never knew the reason for his detention. He suffers from mental health problems, which have worsened since being locked up again, this time by the UK Border Agency.
Bassel fell through the cracks of the European common asylum system. It works based on the principle that only one member state may be responsible for examining an asylum application — usually the first country of entry, or where the refugee has been fingerprinted — known as the Dublin regulation. The British authorities have submitted a request to the Spanish government to examine Bassel’s application, as Spain was his first point of entry to Europe. “They’re asking me why I didn’t seek asylum there. I told them I came to join my family.”
Syrian demonstrations in London.
The Dublin regulation was conceived as a common system that would prevent “asylum shopping” — applications being lodged in more than one country. It does this through a compulsory fingerprinting system known as EURODAC, which tracks every foreign national over 14 years of age who applies for asylum or is stopped in relation to his immigration status within the European Union. EURODAC sends the person’s data to a central database to enable states to track the movement of applicants.
In fact, studies conducted on the implementation of Dublin II, first introduced in 2003, show that the system doesn’t really work. According to the last available data, in 2009-2010, only one third of asylum cases accepted for transfer actually took place. The reason for this is that asylum seekers often disappear upon receiving a transfer decision. In turn, this has led to an increasing use of detention (which, in the UK, costs the taxpayer an average of $198 per day for each detainee) to prevent asylum seekers from absconding upon receiving a transfer decision.
'Then I was on the streets. Not even animals live on the streets in Europe.'
On more than one occasion, member states have exchanged equivalent numbers of requests for transfers, in a ball-bouncing waste of expensive bureaucracy. The new version of the regulation, Dublin III, which applies to cases opened after January 1, 2014, makes some positive steps in terms of detention and respect for a refugee’s right to family life, but fails to fundamentally reform the system. According to UK Home Office figures for 2013, out of a total of 1,669 asylum applications lodged by Syrians, 103 were refused on the grounds that, legally, the refugee could be transferred to a safe third country through which they had transited. According to a recent parliamentary answer, 20 Syrians are currently languishing in UK immigration removal centers.
Tayseer Al-Karim, a 33-year-old oncologist, was also hoping to make a fresh start in the UK, where he had some friends and a support network. Instead, he found himself at the mercy of a ruthless smuggler who dumped him in the wrong country — despite having dug deep into his pockets for a safer route. It's been reported that refugees have paid up to $16,000 for the most sought-after destinations, such as Sweden.
“Our deal was to reach the UK via France, but it didn’t work out,” says Tayseer. “I feel shame, as a field doctor, for leaving my people.” In Paris, Tayseer is trying to adjust to refugee life, which basically amounts to having not very much money, filling out a lot of forms, and waiting around for housing support.
Tayseer had worked as a medic in opposition-controlled field hospitals, for which he was imprisoned, tortured, and tried. After his home was raided and his wife became pregnant with his baby daughter, he decided the best course of action was to make his way to Europe, in the hope they could both join him soon. After travelling through a string of countries in the Middle East and Europe, he ended up in the Netherlands, where he applied for asylum and got temporary accommodation. The Dutch government, however, found he was a Dublin case — because his fingerprints had been taken by the French authorities — and put him on a plane to Paris.
“The policeman gave me a paper and told me I had eight days to apply for asylum. I said I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak French, and that I needed a place to stay. I asked him to call the Red Cross. He said that wasn’t his job,” says Tayseer. “Then I was on the streets. Not even animals live on the streets in Europe.”
He initially found accommodation with a fellow Syrian national, who directed him to local support groups, and began finding his way around the French asylum system.
He shows me some pictures of his journey, and many of his baby daughter. One photograph strikes me as odd: he is wearing a white shirt and a small backpack, with his hands behind his head and a broad smile on his face. It could be a shot from a family holiday album. I ask him if that picture is also from this trip. “When I left, I thought we could be killed... but I didn’t say that to my wife. So I was smiling to face the fear of death and of never meeting my baby.”
Apart from the few places offered by the UNHCR and other resettlement schemes, there are almost no legal ways for Syrians to get to Europe. Refugees trying to make it to fortress Europe are at the mercy of smuggling routes and of a system that puts their lives on hold, waiting for a bureaucrat to decide how and where they will end up.
Follow Ylenia Gostoli on Twitter: @YleniaGostoli