The Syrian refugee crisis has reached a tally of more than two million who have fled the country, leading the United Nations to characterize the pace of the diaspora as the worst since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The neighboring countries bear the brunt of this refugee influx, of which only a tiny fraction have risked their lives by travelling on to reach safety ‘illegally’ in Europe. An additional estimated 4.5 million have been displaced within Syria, including Palestinian refugees. These individuals are not “simply” refugees displaced by the war, they are also stateless, with dubious chances of any future return to a country where they have never been recognized as citizens.
The Yarmouk refugee camp in which I grew up bears no resemblance to the Yarmouk of today, known for its horrific images of despair and misery. When I left Yarmouk in 2008 to pursue my studies in Belgium, it was just a huge suburb of Damascus, abuzz with people and economic activity.
Having been stateless, I have always been fascinated by stories of migration and asylum, and I decided to do a Master’s in migration, focusing on the EU’s migration and asylum policy. I thought that my refugee and stateless status afforded me the closest degree of hands-on knowledge of the subject I was specializing in. 2013 proved me wrong.
Although stateless Palestinians enjoy almost the same social and economic rights as Syrians, they are the only group which de jure cannot apply for Syrian nationality. Consequently, generation after generation, Palestinians are born into statelessness. Before the civil war, Palestinians in Syria felt relatively privileged in comparison to their counterparts in neighbouring countries. But when the war broke out, they found themselves doubly disadvantaged. Unlike Syrians who have access to almost all neighbouring countries without a visa, Palestinians are for the most part unwelcome. Moreover, being stateless, they do not hold recognized passports, making it even more difficult to seek protection.
Following the entry of rebels in Yarmouk, the camp became the theatre of merciless combat between the rebels and the Syrian Army, culminating in indiscriminate bombardments that triggered the exodus of the majority of its residents, including my family. For them it was the second “Nakba”, Arabic for catastrophe, a term used to refer to the events that preceded and followed the creation of Israel and the forced displacement of the Palestinian people that ensued.
Safe haven in Damascus proved extremely difficult to come by. The security situation kept worsening and forced disappearances and indiscriminate shootings became rampant, forcing my family and others to consider leaving the country.
Given the restrictions that neighbouring countries impose to limit the entry and residency of Palestinian refugees from Syria, my family decided to seek asylum in Europe.
Instead of enabling me to provide safety for my family, my knowledge of the EU asylum and migration policies and laws made only for despair. Although by that time I had obtained Belgian nationality, my new country could not be a safe haven for my family as the EU Family Reunification Directive limits family reunification to spouses and minor children. As for asylum, lack of legal access to EU territory means that the only way to seek protection, a right guaranteed by international law, is to resort to the services of unscrupulous smugglers. My family was one of the “lucky few” who were able to collect the exorbitant fees requested by smugglers, for whom the lack of access to protection in the EU has become a cash-cow.
Seen from Syria, Sweden seems like an “Eldorado”. To reach it, refugees must face insurmountable hurdles and life-threatening challenges. Once they make it to the shores of the EU, one legal hurdle is the Dublin Regulation stipulating that refugee claims must be assessed in the first EU country of entry. However, although all EU Members States have the same European asylum law, standards, procedures and conditions vary enormously from one EU country to another. For example, an asylum seeker who has a high chance of being recognized as such in Sweden and is provided with decent reception conditions, has little chance in Greece where they can be treated as criminals. There have been cases of Palestinian refugees in Greece being handed orders to exit the territory within 30 days, because authorities had neglected to register their country of origin as Syria. There have also been pushbacks at sea of refugees from Syria – including Palestinians – at the Greek-Turkish border.
With this in mind, the itinerary was fixed: Damascus-Cairo-Sweden. At the time, Egypt was still allowing Palestinian and Syrian refugees visa-free entry into its territory. This is unfortunately no longer the case, and Egypt has ceased to be a viable solution for refugees from Syria.
After around three weeks in Cairo and Alexandria, and two attempts to embark on a flimsy boat, my family managed to evade the Egyptians patrolling the coast. Others have not been so lucky and have faced arrest and deportation after being caught by Egyptian authorities. Conditions on the boat were beyond appalling. The one-week journey in the sea was so perilous that, in my mother’s words, you “wouldn’t wish it even on your enemy”. Once near the Italian territorial waters, they were left alone and told that the Italian coast guards would spot and rescue them. This was not the case, and their over-crowded boat was left to the whims of waves and currents for 24 hours before they were spotted off the coast of Calabria. By then, their rickety boat was barely holding up.
Once on shore, they were taken to a closed centre in Calabria. According to EU rules, they should have gotten finger-printed on arrival – something they desperately wanted to avoid so as not to be registered in Italy and forced to apply for asylum there. Everybody was apprehensive, especially with stories of the Italian police sometimes beating men into finger-printing. Fortunately, three days later they managed to escape the centre “un-finger-printed”. A car was awaiting them, and in about 24 hours they drove all the way to Sweden, a ride that was as impressively fast as it was expensive.
Today, my family has embarked on a new life in Northern Sweden where they have been allocated a decent house. They have already started their language classes in preparation for their 2-year-long integration program to prepare them for their life in Sweden, something unthinkable in most other European countries.
My family’s story had a relatively good ending, but those of many other Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria do not. A safe haven in the region is increasingly hard to find as the situation keeps deteriorating in Syria. Palestinian refugees face draconian restrictions on their movement and residency in neighboring countries. Lebanon has just joined Jordan and Iraq and introduced measures to deny Palestinian refugees from Syria access and stay in Lebanon; it has also recently expelled dozens of Palestinians to Syria in violation of article 3 of the Convention against Torture ratified by Lebanon.
Refugees decide to cross the Mediterranean fully aware of the dangers of the journey, but their dream of a decent life for themselves and their loved ones, a life that seems unattainable in today’s Syria, pushes them to risk their lives. Palestinian refugees were amongst the hundreds who drowned following a shipwreck on 11 October 2013, off the coast of Malta.
In this context, initiatives such as the ECRE-led campaign of which the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network is also part, called “Europe Act Now” are all the more essential. As a neighbour, the EU has a moral and legal responsibility to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, including its Palestinian residents. Instead of forcing refugees from Syria to take increasingly dangerous routes to reach safety, the EU should create safe and legal channels to reach Europe and to ensure effective access to protection and fair and efficient asylum procedures in EU Member States. In addition, specific efforts should tackle the protection needs of stateless refugees, given their extreme vulnerability and very limited prospects of future return.
Facilitating visas, widening the scope for family reunification, and taking in more refugees through resettlement and humanitarian admission are only some of the ways by which EU Member States can play an active role in saving innocent lives instead of turning the Mediterranean into a graveyard for those who managed escape the one in Syria.
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