Out of Syria, Into a European Maze
By Jim Yardley and Gaia Pianigiani, NY Times, November 29, 2013
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.
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.
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."
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."