Why Syrian Refugees Risk the ‘Journey of Death’ to Europe

Why Syrian Refugees Risk the ‘Journey of Death’ to Europe

Why Syrian Refugees Risk the ‘Journey of Death’ to Europe

The crisis shows no signs of ending, and Egypt is no refuge. Europe must do more to take them in.



It was the first week of 2015, and everyone in Alexandria was talking about the weather. It was one of the coldest weeks in recent memory; an icy slush coated the seafront road and huge waves broke over the barrier walls that dropped down to the rocky coastline. In the weak winter sun, teenage boys posed on the concrete, trying to capture selfies with a particularly ferocious bit of spray. But mostly, those who could stay indoors did.

For the more than 136,000 Syrians living in Egypt, the weather meant one thing: no one would be traveling to Europe that week. The seas were too rough, and the boats that left the north coast daily over the summer had thinned as cold weather came on, though some continued to attempt the crossing as late as December. Last year had seen a travel “high season” that began in April and ended in September, the period when seas are calmest. But as the war in Syria ground on, hopes of return winked out, demand grew and the boats to Europe kept going.

Syrians famously call the sea crossing to Europe “the journey of death.” They call the boats “the boats of death” and the smugglers “the agents of death.” The International Organization for Migration estimated that in 2014 at least 3,200 migrants had died at sea while trying to reach Italy (usually the first port of call), more than four times as many as the year before. Three-quarters of all migrants who died crossing sea and land borders worldwide perished in the Mediterranean.

And yet, week after week, month after month, they kept going in a way that seemed jarringly casual. In a Skype conversation with Abdou, a 26-year-old pharmacist now living in Norway, I asked him why he’d taken the risk, attempting the trip to Europe twice—once from Egypt and once from Libya. Abdou (who, like most Syrians interviewed for this article, requested a nickname or pseudonym) is from Ghouta al-Sharqiya, a town on the outskirts of Damascus that captured the world’s attention in 2013 after the Syrian government attacked it with chemical weapons, killing several hundred civilians.

“Only 10 percent of people drown,” he told me. “Your chances of success are much higher. My friend told me that the journey is very dangerous; at any moment you could die or drown. But if you make it to Sweden or Norway, it’ll be a good future. I wanted to have a good future, to continue my studies. I didn’t see any other way.”

Abdou had lived, by his account, a comfortable middle-class life in Ghouta before Syria’s uprising began in 2011. His family owned a pharmacy, and he planned to join the business. But as the conflict developed into a full-fledged war and he could no longer avoid mandatory military service, he fled to Egypt. “I didn’t want to participate in the killing. I didn’t want to share in the blood,” he told me. His family stayed behind.

In Egypt, Abdou worked at a pharmacy in Ismailiya, but he didn’t see a future for himself there. He wanted to complete his master’s degree. He applied for visas to several different countries, including the United States and the United Arab Emirates, but all his applications were rejected, a fact that shocked and dismayed him, though it seemed to me entirely predictable.

Abdou’s Syrian passport was on the verge of expiring, and he couldn’t renew it because he hadn’t completed his mandatory military service. So he decided to take his chances at sea. On his first attempt, in December 2013, the police caught his group while they were waiting to make their way to the shore. Egyptian authorities detained him for two months before sending him to Lebanon. But he spent only twenty days there, using the time to arrange his second attempt—this time, through Libya. The sea route from there is much shorter, but Libya is also much more dangerous, so Abdou planned to spend as little time there as possible. “I contacted a smuggler on Viber,” he told me. “I set the whole thing up before I left. I boarded a flight in the morning, arrived in the afternoon and was on a boat that night, at 3 am.”

The smuggler, he says, met him at the airport. “He took my money right there. It cost $2,300,” he said. The smuggler had promised a sturdy, safe boat with a maximum of 120 people, but he brought Abdou to a rickety wooden fishing vessel packed with over 300 men, women and children. By the time Abdou discovered the truth, he had handed over his money and was up to his waist in seawater. There was no turning back. But he was lucky—seas were calm, and an Italian coast guard ship picked them up after only thirteen hours, taking the group to Sicily.

From there, he made his way to Norway. A few months later, his younger brother joined him, also making the voyage from Libya and also avoiding the mandatory Syrian military service. Now they live together in a small apartment on the outskirts of Oslo. They take Norwegian language lessons, and the government gives them a living stipend of about $1,000 a month. “The treatment here is good, and they’re polite to us,” Abdou told me. Once he finishes his language course, he plans to complete his master’s degree in pharmaceutical studies.

* * *

Like Abdou, most of the Syrians I met saw no real future in Egypt. They arrived there before July 2013, when the army removed President Mohamed Morsi from office and appointed an interim government to replace him. Morsi’s government gave Syrians, unlike other refugees in Egypt, access to free healthcare and education. They could enter the country without visas, and faced relatively little police harassment. In contrast to Jordan and Turkey, where the government housed many refugees in camps, in Egypt they could live and look for work in cities and towns.

Just days after seizing power, the interim government issued a directive requiring Syrians to obtain security clearance before coming to Egypt, making it nearly impossible to obtain entry visas. Egyptian media began demonizing the Syrian population, saying they had taken payoffs to participate in pro-Morsi demonstrations at the huge Cairo sit-in protest after the June coup, and one particularly virulent talk-show host announced that Syrians should fear for their safety. “We know your addresses, and we will destroy your houses,” he told them. By August 2013, Syrians began leaving the country that had formerly provided a safe haven.

That summer, Syrians still asked me about the possibility of resettlement in Europe through the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). But by 2014, many of them knew their chances of going through official channels were slim to nonexistent. That year, the agency referred only 1,500 to resettlement, just 1 percent of Syrians registered with the agency in Egypt.

By this year, the Syrian refugee crisis was bigger than ever, yet funding was increasingly difficult to secure. UNHCR and its humanitarian aid partners had dramatically cut financial support to the refugees. Aisha, a mother of five living in a suburb of Alexandria, told me she could only afford to send her children to school one day a week with the education stipend she now receives. Previously, she had been able to pay the transportation expenses for the full school week. Healthcare and living expenses also posed problems.

Meanwhile, as I learned more about the voyage from Egypt to Europe, I was struck by just how easy it was to book a place on one of the boats. If you came from a poor, war-torn or repressive country, you had only to ask. Most travelers I met got recommendations from friends who had made the crossing, took a contact number and reserved their own spot.

The journey from Egypt costs between $1,500 and $3,000, with room for bargaining and depending on the season. Many families told me that their younger children traveled for free. And sometimes, the smugglers came to them. I heard several accounts of migrants offered free journeys if they could simply round up a few paying friends. “You can go balash [without paying],” agents told them. “Just bring us people.”

But even those who pay don’t need to do so until they reach their goal—Italian waters. Instead, they pay a third party, who holds the money until the migrant calls with a special code, agreed upon in advance, authorizing release of payment to the smuggler. Many migrants pay by this type of holding system in both Egypt and Turkey. Those who fail have to endure the fear and grueling physical trials of another attempt, sometimes spending time in Egyptian jails, but they’re free to try again and again until they reach Italy’s shores. “I know people who have tried nine, ten, even eleven times,” Hebat Allah Mansour told me. Since August 2013, Mansour has volunteered with the Refugees Solidarity Movement in Alexandria, which helps migrants detained by the Egyptian police.

Migrants pack sparingly for the journey; sometimes, smugglers don’t let them bring anything at all. In one account, Syrian journalist and filmmaker Najib Mazloum wrote of his eleven-day voyage from Alexandria to the Italian port of Taranto. He described his packing list as follows: some clothes, dried dates and water, a few cans of meat, triangles of long-life cheese, a sun visor, a jacket, and his mobile phone and identity documents, wrapped in nylon to keep them dry and hung from a pouch around his neck. He also brought medicine for diarrhea, nausea and seasickness, burn cream and sterile wipes. Everything had to fit in a small shoulder bag. “More than this,” he wrote, “and you will be forced to leave your bag behind.”

Time and again, I was struck by just how normal this dangerous journey had become for the Syrian community in Egypt. People spoke casually of the smugglers and their samasira (agents). They talked about “reserving” their spots. Money was short, they had families to support, and they knew they’d probably be extorted again before their voyage was done, so they haggled over how many spots they would have to buy. Could the women and children travel for free? Could they get a discount if they brought friends along?

They knew how many hours it should take to leave Egyptian national waters, and they knew that on the other side there should be a barija—a European coast guard or naval vessel—to rescue them, marking the end of that phase of their journey. They knew the names of the Italian ports they hoped to reach, and they chose their new homes by reputation. Norway, Sweden and Denmark were all popular choices, known for treating refugees well, as was Germany. Greece and Italy were considered bad options, already flooded with migrants and refugees and offering little social support. Migrants prayed they wouldn’t be caught by authorities and fingerprinted in these gateway countries or elsewhere before they reached their final destination. (Refugees are supposed to apply for asylum in the first European country they arrive in, but if they evade capture before arriving in the nation of their choosing, they can seek asylum there instead.)

* * *

I met families scattered across the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe like the beads of a broken necklace. Having given up hope on Syria, they saw Europe as their only chance of coming together again. If even a single member could make it, perhaps they had a chance at reunification.

Asma’a, a 32-year-old mother of four young children, told me that her husband spent two months detained in an Alexandria police station after attempting to make the crossing, before authorities deported him to Turkey. She had been on her own for four months, and had asked her sister in Syria to sell the furniture from their former Damascus apartment in order to pay her living expenses a bit longer. The furniture was her last asset, her husband was hardly earning any money in Turkey, and they had no idea when they would be able to meet again. “He wants to try again by boat,” she told me. “Then maybe I can go to him through the reunification procedures.” She had a nervous, fragile air; her hands fluttered and tears welled up in her eyes when she talked about visiting her husband in detention at the police station. An officer there repeatedly asked her for money when she went to visit, and he took her phone number, calling her several times and insinuating that perhaps there was something else she could do to bring about his release.

Umm Mohammed was pregnant with her sixth child when she and her husband made their first attempt in the summer of 2013. When they reached the shore, police fired shots in the air and then arrested them as they tried to flee. She spent two weeks in jail. When she and her family were released, they tried again. This time, when they got to the beach, “there were baltajiya [thugs] waiting there for us,” she said. “They hit us and beat us with sticks, and had knives as well. So we had to run away. I saw people watching from their balconies and laughing at us. No one did anything to help.”

By this time, late in her pregnancy, Umm Mohammed didn’t feel up to making another attempt, but her husband decided to try once more, along with their 13-year-old daughter. The two made it to Germany, which he had heard offered good education. Umm Mohammed gave birth in Egypt, with her family spread between two continents. “She’s an Egyptian!” she joked to me, speaking of her infant daughter. But several weeks later, I heard that she and the rest of her children had flown to Germany after the government approved her application for family reunification. Europe was her children’s future after all.

If a family member can’t make it to Europe through illegal routes, the chances of anyone going through official channels are slim. Although there are now more than 3.7 million Syrian refugees, as of mid-2014, European countries had offered only 31,800 spots for official resettlement. Counting those officially resettled and those who crossed Europe’s borders illegally and sought asylum, less than 6 percent of Syria’s refugees are now in Europe. Sweden and Germany alone took in over half of this total. The United Kingdom, shamefully, has offered resettlement to only ninety. (The United States took in only 350 in 2014.)

* * *

I spent one rainy afternoon in a dilapidated seaside settlement called Palm Beach, on Egypt’s north coast. Abu Nawaf, a man in his 50s, sat heavily on a wood-framed sofa in the small, sparsely furnished apartment he shared with his wife, several children and elderly mother. In Syria he had owned a popular Damascus restaurant, as well as a villa and farmland in Quneitra, the part of Syria that borders Israel in the Golan Heights.

Abu Nawaf insisted that I watch, over and over again, two videos on his mobile phone. The first showed his villa when it was intact, a cavernous dwelling with track lighting set into a tiered interior dome, a plush burgundy sitting room that stretched out like a hotel conference hall, a flash of pink uniform in the background. “That was the servant we used to have; she took care of my mother,” he told me. The next showed the villa destroyed, its floors littered with charred rubble, flies swarming the three-level concrete fountain in the middle of its circular driveway.

Abu Nawaf fled to Egypt after armed men opened fire on his truck, inflicting multiple gunshot wounds. He was left with injuries that hospitals in Egypt said they could not operate upon further, due to the trauma he had already sustained. He showed me a creased paper, a medical assessment from a local hospital that reached this grim conclusion. Then he lifted up his shirt to show me heavy bands of medical tape crossing his midsection from abdomen to chest, skin bulging loosely over the edges. “Every day I tape myself up. I can’t move otherwise,” he told me.

Abu Nawaf was not strong enough to travel by sea, and he could not leave behind his mother, who couldn’t stand on her own and required constant care. Like so many others too ill or infirm or whose physical disabilities prevented them from making the journey, he felt cheated by the system. “I can’t travel legally or illegally,” he told me. His application for resettlement had been pending for more than a year.

Since August 2013, more than 7,000 migrants have been arrested in Egypt while trying to leave by boat, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). Sometimes Mansour of the Refugees Solidarity Movement sees the same families jailed twice. Last September, 500 migrants who embarked from the Egyptian port of Damietta drowned after smugglers rammed another boat into theirs. According to survivors, the smugglers did so deliberately.

I asked Mansour what she thought would solve the problems she encountered—the deaths, detentions and other tragedies migrants face while attempting this dangerous journey. “Just try to make their lives easier,” she answered. “They don’t have jobs. The children get harassed in school, so parents stop sending them. It’s become difficult for them to renew their residence visas.” But with things as they were in Egypt and worsening by the day in Syria, Europe remained the goal for nearly everyone she met, she said. “None of them think of any other way.”

Although the Syrians I met said the sea journey frightened them and they didn’t trust the smugglers, fear and uncertainty would not hold them back. “It’s a mission for their lives,” said Muhammad al-Kashef, a researcher for the EIPR. “That’s why they’ll keep trying.”

The winter lull is quickly drawing to a close. Soon the seas will be calmer and the boats will begin crossing again.


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