Published On: Wed, Dec 4th, 2013

The Syrian Exodus, Into a European Maze

As war rages on, more refugees are risking a journey to what they hope will be prosperous new lives.

By  and GAIA PIANIGIANI | New York Times | 29 Nov 2013

Syrian fleeing their country to Europe

SYRACUSE, Sicily — Fifty miles off the southeastern coast of Sicily, the refugee boat first appeared as a gray spot on the horizon, rising up or dipping away with the churn of the Mediterranean. Then, as an Italian Coast Guard rescue ship drew closer, the small boat came fully into view, as did the dim figure of a man, standing on the bow, waving a white blanket.

SYRACUSE, Sicily — Fifty miles off the southeastern coast of Sicily, the refugee boat first appeared as a gray spot on the horizon, rising up or dipping away with the churn of the Mediterranean. Then, as an Italian Coast Guard rescue ship drew closer, the small boat came fully into view, as did the dim figure of a man, standing on the bow, waving a white blanket.

Adrift at sea, the boat heaved with about 150 Syrians fleeing war. Mothers in head scarves clutched infants. A child wore a SpongeBob life jacket. Smugglers had left them alone with a satellite phone and an emergency number in Italy: Save us, they pleaded to the Italians before the phone went dead. We are lost.

Capt. Roberto Mangione shouted for everyone to stay calm as he positioned his Coast Guard ship alongside the listing trawler. The Syrians, pale and beleaguered, started clapping. They had been at sea for six days, drinking fetid water, enduring a terrifying storm. One man combed his hair, as if preparing to greet his new life. A woman named Abeer, dazed and exhausted, thought: salvation, at last.

“I had nothing left in Syria,” she explained after stepping onto the rescue boat. She had fled with her husband and three teenage children. “We came with nothing but ourselves to Europe.”

The Syrian exodus has become one of the gravest global refugee crises of recent decades. More than two million people have fled Syria’s civil war, most resettling in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But since this summer, refugees have also started pouring into Europe in what became for many weeks a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Over five months, Italy’s Coast Guard rescued thousands of Syrians, even as hundreds of other migrants, including many Syrians, died in two major shipwrecks in October.

For many, reaching Europe was merely the beginning of another difficult journey. Having risked their lives in hopes of settling in prospering Northern Europe, many Syrians found themselves trapped in the south, living illegally in Italy, hiding from the police, as they tried to sneak past border guards and travel north to apply for asylum.

For many, reaching Europe was merely the beginning of another difficult journey. Having risked their lives in hopes of settling in prospering Northern Europe, many Syrians found themselves trapped in the south, living illegally in Italy, hiding from the police, as they tried to sneak past border guards and travel north to apply for asylum.

One Syrian man set himself on fire in Rome in October as a protest. In Milan, the financial capital and a transit hub near Italy’s northern border, Syrians began arriving in August, and kept coming as late as November, as refugees took shelter in the central train station, presenting local officials with a dilemma: help them or arrest them?

“This is a humanitarian emergency,” Pierfrancesco Majorino, a Milan council member, said in late October.

Syrians fleeing their country

From the outset, Europe’s response to the Syrian refugees has pitted the ideals of the Continent against the hard reality of European immigration and asylum laws. After the October shipwrecks, European leaders pledged to increase patrols and rescue operations in the Mediterranean — long a demand of southern countries like Italy, which have complained of bearing Europe’s burden.

But Europe’s broader policies on migration and asylum remain riddled with contradictions and mixed signals. This year, Germany and Sweden promised generous benefits and asylum for Syrian refugees, which inspired thousands of Syrians to pay extortionate fees to smugglers to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

Yet upon reaching Italy, the gateway to Europe, the Syrians have been ensnared in red tape: European law requires that the police immediately fingerprint and register them as refugees in Italy — and asylum seekers must make their applications in the country where they are first fingerprinted and registered.

Few Syrians want asylum in Italy, where the economy is mired in recession and benefits for migrants are meager. Once fingerprinted, however, even if the Syrians make it north to Sweden or Germany, they can be sent back to Italy, where the asylum process often drags on for months.

“They are not offering us things we left our country for — no jobs, no homes,” Abeer said. “They are sympathetic. But I didn’t leave Damascus to live like that. Poverty is as bad as war.” Like most Syrians interviewed for this article, Abeer asked to be identified by a single name out of fear of saying anything that might bring retribution to family members still in Syria.

Abeer’s rescue at sea on Oct. 2 came weeks after her family fled Syria.

They had planned to leave Italy quickly for Sweden. Instead, they spent nearly a month bouncing around Italy, desperately raising money for a trip north, trying to elude the police and immigration authorities.

“I thought things were going to be easier,” she said later at a park in Milan. “But no. Our dreams have begun to fade.”

Rescue at Sea

The storm hit on the second day. Rain battered the refugee boat as heavy winds spun it up and down the lines of high, rolling waves. Land was nowhere to be seen. People retched from seasickness.

“We began to believe we would be dead,” Abeer said.

Her family had left Syria on Sept. 13, shattered by the war. Her husband’s company had been destroyed in a bombing raid. Her teenage son, confronted on the street by a security officer, narrowly escaped being shot. Violence kept creeping closer. A man was killed in a car parked in front of their home. On another day, Abeer found a head on the street.

She started selling things — rings, a necklace, a laptop computer, her cellphone. Her relatives and friends sent money until she had raised $11,000. Traveling to Europe by land is very difficult, so most Syrians pay smugglers to take them by boat. Abeer’s family flew to Egypt and spent 15 days shuttling between safe houses in the port city of Alexandria, until they were rushed onto a tiny boat in the early morning darkness, as the smugglers cursed them.

“They were threatening us all the time,” Abeer said.

Smuggling operations have long flourished in northern Africa, often along the coasts of Libya or Tunisia, only 70 miles or so from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Critics of Europe’s immigration policies say smugglers thrive because Europe has created too few legal channels for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, especially for poor refugees seeking to escape countries such as Eritrea or Somalia.

For reasons of proximity, most Syrians travel through Egypt rather than Libya, and many of those coming to Europe are from the middle class, including pharmacists, engineers and shop owners. In interviews with dozens of Syrians now in Italy, several said they had ruled out Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, because Europe offers the potential of professional opportunities and lifestyles similar to what they left behind.

“I hear the Syrian people get bad treatment in Jordan and Lebanon,” said one man, Basim, a medical technician who spent 10 days at sea to reach Italy. “Sweden, I will go to Sweden. Sweden is good life.”

The Egyptian route can take six days or longer, with smugglers charging $1,000 to $3,500 per person to reach the waters near Sicily. Many of the boats are 55-foot wooden trawlers that have been stripped down to rickety hulls, making it easier for smugglers to press as many as 500 people onboard.”

Usually, smugglers depart Egypt with the refugees packed onto a large “mother” ship that is towing a smaller trawler. Once reaching Italian waters, the refugees are pushed onto the smaller boat, handed a satellite phone and given emergency numbers in Italy. The smugglers turn back to Egypt on the larger ship, leaving the Syrians abandoned at sea, sometimes for several days, waiting to be rescued.

“They are so desperate,” said Luca Sancilio, who served as commander of the Coast Guard station in Syracuse until mid-November when he was promoted to a new position in Rome. “We’ve seen people in wheelchairs, and people with amputated limbs.”

The smugglers abandoned Abeer’s boat on the fifth day, promising it would reach land in three hours. But 15 hours had passed, and people became increasingly desperate. Abeer, utterly exhausted, said she began to contemplate suicide.

Then, in the distance, the Italian rescue ship came into view.

“When we saw the boat, we thought, ‘At last, we are saved,'” Abeer said. “I forgot all the pain. We were going to be on the earth again. I hated the sea.”

But as the Italian rescue ship came near, the Syrians also reminded themselves: no fingerprints in Italy.

Clenched Fists

Day or night, as refugees have poured into Syracuse throughout the summer and early fall, even the tourists at the outdoor cafes have succumbed to the spectacle. On some nights, they press against the temporary fencing at the dock, snapping photographs and watching in silence as Syrians stagger off Coast Guard rescue boats.

“The numbers are so big this year that there is no comparison,” said Commander Sancilio of the Coast Guard. Last year, Coast Guard boats in Syracuse rescued 572 migrants at sea. By late November this year, the number had exceeded 11,500, mostly Syrians or Palestinians who had been living for generations in Syria.

Tragedy is common. Coast Guard crews have found bodies on refugee boats; one mother saw both her children die on a journey and had to toss their bodies overboard. Captain Mangione, who leads many of the rescue missions, carries a gurney because his crew often has to transfer people with gunshot wounds suffered in Syria.

But there is also joy. In late September, a Syrian man named Jaffar arrived at the Coast Guard office in tears. A year earlier, he had escaped to Finland; now he had come to Sicily to find his brother and two nephews. He had tracked them by text message until they fled by boat from Egypt. When the boat was brought in a day later, Jaffar tried to break past the police as the refugees slowly stepped onto the dock.

“My brother! My brother!” he shouted at the sight of a weary man holding a small child, a second boy standing nearby. He then held out his mobile phone and broadcast live images, via Skype, to his brother’s wife, still in Syria.

Hours after refugees arrive at the dock, the police and customs officials are required to take fingerprints and register each person into a Europe-wide database. Many times, Syrians will clench their fists, refusing to reveal their fingertips. In some instances, Syrians have complained that the police forced them to submit, even beating them.

Abeer was supposed to represent her group with the Italian authorities. In Syria, she had taught English in a Palestinian settlement and assumed she could communicate with the authorities in Sicily. But at the dock, she was rushed to a hospital after nearly fainting from exhaustion. When she returned, the police were in a tense confrontation with a group of Syrian men after 20 people had been forcibly fingerprinted.

“I went to the gate and asked for the police officer,” she said. “He said, ‘O.K., I promise you I’m not going to oblige anyone else.’ They were very kind. They brought us food, coats and milk.” And the fingerprinting stopped.

The fingerprints tether a person in a system that requires asylum seekers to make applications in the country where they are first registered. Even if Syrians make it north to Sweden or Germany, they are sent back to Italy, where the asylum process can drag on for months and where benefits are paltry.

In Syracuse, the entry point into Italy’s immigration system is a nondescript holding center on the outskirts of the city, where newly arrived migrants await asylum hearings. The gate is left open, and when the Syrians on Abeer’s boat arrived at the center, several people left almost immediately for the closest train station. Abeer’s family stayed for two days, calling friends and relatives to raise 2,000 euros, about $2,700. Then they walked six miles to the bus station.

Leaving was easy. But it also meant that they were now in the country illegally.

Escape From Italy

On Oct. 18, a Friday, families loitered on benches inside a park on the outskirts of Milan as children ran in circles, laughing. Only slowly did it become clear that most of the people in the park were Syrian, including Abeer and her family.

 They were different now. Gone was the veil once worn by Abeer. The two teenage girls wore clingy jeans and jewelry. Abeer combed out her hair and wore makeup. This was not a celebration of a more permissive culture. They were trying to blend in, to avoid notice as illegal migrants.

The €2,000 that had bankrolled their departure from Sicily was now mostly gone. They had taken trains and buses to Rome and Tuscany, then up to Milan, back to Tuscany, and back again to Milan, living on the run. They tried to fly to Denmark but were stopped by a guard at the Milan airport who refused to let them pass through security.

“I told her she had to help us,” Abeer said. “We were refugees. But she didn’t help.”

In a holding room at the Milan airport, the police pressured the family for fingerprints. They refused, and finally a sympathetic officer let them go, offering a piece of advice: Stay away from trains and planes. Stuck in Milan, they slept on the floor of a mosque, trying to find another way north.

Nor were they alone in Italy’s fashion and financial capital. At Milan’s central train station, beneath billboards for Hugo Boss and Dolce & Gabbana, a few hundred Syrians were squatting on the mezzanine as passengers hurried by in late October.

“A week ago, there were 40 to 50 people here,” said Jesu Issam Kabakebbji, an Italian of Syrian descent, as he sat beside a group of city social service workers, registering the Syrians in the station. “Today, I’ve registered more than 240 names. What are we going to do when the next train from the south comes with more Syrians?”

Officials in Milan, rather than arrest the Syrians, decided to help by establishing an unofficial “humanitarian corridor,” arranging showers at Catholic charities and even assigning rooms in local homeless shelters. Asked whether housing illegal migrants complied with Italian law, Mr. Majorino, the council member, laughed.

“I don’t really know,” he said. “I just know that what we are doing is right. We can’t become the Damascus of Italy. But we have a moral obligation to these people, before a political one.”

Some Syrians had managed to cross the Austrian border by train, only to be sent back by immigration agents. One of them, Alan Ali, 21, a dentistry student from Damascus, had been among the survivors in October of the second shipwreck, in Maltese waters, when he swam to a life raft tossed out of a military airplane from Malta.

“I was swimming,” he said. “But our friends could not swim. Many children died. Many people died. Pregnant women.”

For Abeer’s family, the chance to escape Italy came unexpectedly. A contact in Germany agreed to drive down and bring them to Dortmund. But the car could hold only Abeer and her three children. Her husband would have to remain in Milan and find another way north.

The car arrived in Milan on Oct. 25. Two days later, after detouring through France, they reached Germany. Then, after a few days more, they boarded a bus and then a train for Sweden. The trip took 32 hours, but they made it. And Abeer’s husband also found safe passage.

Appearing before Swedish authorities, the family finally offered their fingerprints. By November, they had started the application process for residency permits, the first step in building a new life.

“We are looking forward to having a room, not a house,” she said before leaving Milan. “Opening the door, closing the door. Being a family again.”