Monday, 1 December 2014

War refugees caught in a no man’s land

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Earlier this month, the Greek port of Igoumenitsa became the scene of a late-night arrest. A 23 year-old Syrian man attempted to board a ferry bound for Italy. An employee spotted his slight figure amid the lumbering trucks and walked him out of the leviathan to waiting officers of the coast guard.

“I will try again. What can I do?” the man, Annas Khalifa, told Al Jazeera amid the din of truck engines. “Even in Greece they do not want us. If we go to a different country this is good for them too, because it takes away a responsibility.”

An estimated 30,000 irregular migrants, most of them Syrian war refugees, are expected to cross into Greece on their way to central Europe this year – a twofold increase on last year’s figure. In the process they bump, moth-like, against invisible security curtains stretching across several borders. Those who can, spend thousands of dollars on increasingly professional smuggling rings, capable of transporting them from Turkey to Germany in under a month. Most, like Khalifa, cannot, and they are accumulating in Greece, posing a policy dilemma for Greek authorities.

Khalifa faced his own dilemma when he reached conscription age two years ago: “If you fight with Assad you will kill your family. If you don’t fight with Assad what you can do?” he asks. “You join the Free Army; and see what’s happened in the Free Army – a lot of groups fighting each other.”

He now wants to complete his degree in electronic engineering. “My mission is to invent stuff,” he says. “In Germany I’ve heard they can support you with free education, so that is my decision.”

Khalifa followed a path trodden by many of his compatriots. He spent most of the last two years in Turkey, working illegally for $350 a month and saving up for his $1,000 seat on a rubber dinghy from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Kos. He then made his way across Greece on boats and buses. Unwisely, he had spent most of his money - $4,000 - on a fake EU residence permit Igoumenitsa authorities confiscated.

The mountains that surround Igoumenitsa are full of migrants in Khalifa’s situation. By day, the forest floor is littered with plastic water bottles, carrier bags, snack wrappers and discarded clothing. By night, the forest comes to life with the voices of Syrians, Afghans and Palestinians, choosing their moment to jump onto trucks as they queue up for security inspections.

“The risk of stowaways is highest on busy nights, when the truck queue goes back for a kilometre into the darkness,” says a coast guard officer. An unmarked police van makes sudden sorties onto the highway, sometimes catching migrants in its high beams.

When they catch us, some police take us and go prison and some of them leave us,” says Faraideen, a 16 year-old Afghan who fled to avoid being pressed into service for the Taliban.

Like Khalifa, Faraideen has chosen education over war; and like Khalifa, he is penniless. As in every trade, however, there are better classes of service for those who can pay.

“The biggest challenge we face is finding the crypts that are built into trucks, not just to stop illegal migration, but also to prevent these people from injuring themselves,” says Antonis Mazis, the coast guard chief here.

Igoumenitsa is a mere six hours from Istanbul along a new highway. Some 100,000 articulated lorries annually traverse its sparkling white concrete from east to west. Checking them all is a mammoth task, but the coast guard sports a rotating collection of confiscated vehicles – a museum of smugglers’ ingenuity.

A flatbed truck carried a cargo of cottonseed over a false bottom, which could conceal dozens of migrants lying down. Another had a hatch in the roof of the driver’s cabin. In yet another, several Afghan children had been stuffed, Ali-Baba fashion, into plastic olive barrels. One teenager was found suffocated inside a false fuel tank.

Stone seems to be a favourite camouflage material, perhaps because X-ray scanners cannot penetrate it. On one occasion, 16 migrants were found inside two hollowed-out granite slabs. On another, migrants were ensconced amid stacks of flagstones. Perhaps the most ingenious disguise consisted of marble sheets leaning against A-frames and dug out like books. Fourteen Afghans were found inside them, and the coast guard estimates the value of this human cargo at over $50,000.

The cost and elaborateness of these preparations, say officials, suggest deals made in Turkey between organised crime rings and trucking companies, rather than casual contracts with individual drivers along the way.

Usually such deals work. Amjad, a 23 year-old Syrian from Damascus, crossed to the Greek island of Lesvos in mid-October. Within a month he was in Germany, walking and driving through Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Hungary and Austria; but the entire trip cost him close to $6,000 in fees to smugglers.


Outside Greece's parliament, dozens of Syrians have pitched camp to protest about the uncertainty of their status here. Some have gone on hunger strike and a few have been hospitalised.

Greek authorities offer Syrians and other war refugees a deportation waiver of up to six months; but they are not allowed to work here. Their children may not enrol in schools, and they are given no documents with which to travel elsewhere legally. 

“We escaped war in Syria. We escaped from killing, bombings and aircraft every day, and our houses are destroyed,” says Jamal al Abdullah, one of the protesters. “We escaped to another country to get our human rights. But we didn't find it here in Greece. So we want to get out of Greece to get it.” 

Without the thousands of dollars they need to have themselves smuggled deeper into Europe, these people are charity cases trapped in limbo.

Gian Othman, a 21 year-old lawyer from Aleppo, is another of those trapped in Greece. With a group of friends he tried overland routes, twice through Albania and three times through former Yugoslav Macedonia. He says Albanian police took his and his companions’ cell phones and money, then told them to walk back through the mountains. “They raised their machine guns and told us, ‘go to Greece,’ he says. 

“We have two choices; one, give us our rights, university, work, food, or let us go out of Greece,” he says.

A 2011 Greek law does allow authorities to issue permanent residence permits on humanitarian grounds, but it is a seldom-used option.

“Greece should go to its European partners and say, ‘let’s share the burden across the EU, each in proportion to population,’” says Andreas Takis, associate professor of law at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. “But to do this you’ve got to have a precise record of everyone who’s arrived and have given them some sort of status to be able to say, ‘I have so many resident refugees.’”

He believes that the unspoken policy of allowing people to try to smuggle themselves out of the country is morally wrong. “Turkey is doing it without being in the European Union and having harmonized laws. For us to be doing it, it’s much worse.”

Amjad returns to life

This article was published by UNHCR as part of a series of refugee profiles. 

Amjad was killed two years ago at the age of 21, while studying international relations in Damascus. Government soldiers used him as a human shield as they went from door to door in his apartment building, looking for opposition fighters. Amjad says they found no-one. Nis neighbours had all fled.

When they were finished, they motioned him into a dimly lit bathroom and shot him five times with a Kalashnikov. He fell to the floor covered in blood, but because his side had been turned to the platoon officer who had fired, most of the salvo had gone into his right arm and only one bullet had entered his torso. Two soldiers were left to give him the coup de grace.

The only reason Amjad is able to tell this tale is that he was extraordinarily lucky. “I pretended to be dead and listened to the two soldiers talking inside the flat. They were saying, ‘let’s check to see if he is still alive and finish him off,’” Amjad says. “They opened the door and saw me lying to one side. They kicked me to turn me face-up. I held my breath for 30 seconds, but I couldn’t do it for longer. They said, ‘he’s still alive, finish him.’ And they shot twice.”

The shots missed his head, which was slumped to his left, and went through the shoulder instead. “The distance [between the bullet and his head] was less than a centimetre,” he says. As he stood on the ferry dock in Mytilini harbour, he lifted his black T-shirt to display the entry and exit wounds on his left shoulder and in his right side.

Amjad had raised suspicion because he was also the sole occupant of an apartment building in the opposition-friendly Mohadamiyeh neighbourhood. After receiving medical treatment in Jordan, Amjad returned to continue working as a male nurse in a makeshift underground clinic sponsored by the Red Crescent.

He did not fight, he says, and did not treat any opposition fighters, only civilians. On his smartphone, he scrolls past photographs of his patients – mostly women and children struck by government ordnance. His own need for more sophisticated medical attention, and his desire to complete his degree, made him decide to leave. He cannot properly move his right arm and needs to remove internal prosthetics implanted during surgery in Jordan.

Perhaps it helps to survive this predicament that Amjad is twice a refugee. He was born to a Palestinian family, which had fled Israel for Lebanon, and fled again to Syria after the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres in September 1982.

Palestinians were welcomed in Syria under Hafez al Assad, father of today’s president, but they are now seen as upstarts. Amjad shows me an old photograph of Hafez al Assad honouring an uncle of his for helping to smuggle Palestinians out of Lebanon and into Syria. That uncle is now under arrest.

“Since I was 14 or 15 we all followed politics,” Amjad says when I ask him why he signed up for international relations, “so I chose it to help my people in the future.” When we spoke for the last time he was on his way to Germany, but was keeping his options open. “I could live in any country as long as I have dignity,” he said.