Syrian war refugees fight EU red tape

Perilous journey across sea ends in frustration for many Syrians ensnared in European red tape

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 6:24am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 6:24am


Fifty nautical miles off the southeast coast of Sicily, the refugee boat first appeared as a grey spot on the horizon, rising up or dipping away with the churn of the Mediterranean.

Then, as an Italian coastguard rescue ship drew closer, the small boat came fully into view.

Adrift at sea, the boat heaved with about 150 Syrians fleeing war. Smugglers had left them alone with a satellite phone and an emergency number in Italy.

Captain Roberto Mangione shouted for everyone to stay calm as he positioned his coastguard 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.

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 neighbouring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But since this summer, refugees have also started pouring into Europe.

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.

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.

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

Hours after refugees arrive at the dock, the Italian police and customs officials are required to register each person into a Europe-wide database.

After being rescued, they had planned to leave Italy quickly for Sweden, said a woman named Abeer. Instead, she and her family spent nearly a month bouncing around Italy, trying to elude the police and immigration authorities.

"I thought things were going to be easier," she said later in Milan. "But no. Our dreams have begun to fade."

But a chance to escape Italy came unexpectedly for Abeer's family. 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.

Eventually they made it to Sweden. And Abeer's husband also found safe passage.

Appearing before Swedish authorities, the family 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. "Opening the door, closing the door. Being a family again."