This summer Europe has seen one of the most significant influxes of refugees in its history. Civil war, terror and poverty plaguing the Middle East and Africa has driven hundreds of thousands to flee from their homes. Even now, families and children continue to risk their lives following some of the most dangerous trails into Europe for the promise of a better life.
Public reaction has been mixed. Football stadiums cry welcome cheers and crowds march in solidarity while elsewhere asylum centres are burnt down by fanatics and the police raise fences along borders. News coverage has also been fickle — challenging and empathetic at times, misinformed and incendiary at others. All the while, most EU governments remain gridlocked in a squabble over electoral and humanitarian priorities as thousands of incoming refugees suffer the worst consequences of lacking aid resources and organisational and legal support.
Early this October, we spent two weeks following one path taken by refugees spanning six countries and 2,500 km. We aimed to better understand people’s motivations and circumstances for ourselves. We wanted to know what it meant to be a refugee in Europe today.
These were our experiences.
Lesbos feels like an age-old paradise.
From where I’m standing, a cloudless sky rolls out, melting into the Aegean. Turkey’s silhouette is faintly carved on the horizon and a flock of seagulls glides past the sun.
This one dirt road traces the entire coast of the island, dotted with small inns and farms, castle ruins and quaint villages. It winds precariously past grazing horses and humbling vistas through verdant hills.
It’s hard to fathom what’s been happening here for the past months. Piled life vests, fluorescent and skeletal, are strewn in their thousands across the pebbled shore: a line of rubber dinghy carcasses and torn clothes, freckled with pacifiers, souvenirs and passport photos.
The sight dwells restlessly in the lower gut, foreign against the morning calm.
We’re waiting, as usual, scanning the horizon. And then something moves. It disappears for a moment and then resurfaces — small and orange — approaching fast.
“They’re coming!”, Adib shouts. And we’re off.
Racing against the rocks
The orange speck to our right has become fully visible now: dozens of arms reaching out from an overcrowded black vessel, a huddle of screaming faces coming into focus.
Ahead a small group of volunteers has already marked a safe point for arrival. They are waving flags and life-vests in the air. Seasoned journalists are scuttling out of their SUVs to the water’s edge. And in the distance a police van flashes on its sirens.
The boat hits the seabed at speed, spraying a surf skyward and jerking the passengers abruptly. Men are shouting praises to God and mothers grasping wailing children. An elderly lady at the rear collapses off the side, drawing three volunteers to dive after her. The most agile of teenagers begin vaulting towards the land.
The scene a frantic blur, a mess of grasping hands and cold water, jubilation and despair caught amidst fear and relief.
I go to raise my camera but a man wades out in front of me. He passes me a crying boy hurriedly, no more than four years old, gesturing towards his mother who has collapsed a few metres away on the rocks.
The small form in my hands begins to convulse weakly, weightless and shivering — and fixes its gaze on me — a universally heart-wrenching gaze of a vulnerable child.
By the time I walk over, his father and mother have reunited. They too are struggling to breathe, clutching each other in a fit of tears and relief. The child runs over and buries himself next to his sister, deep within their mother’s arms.
I retreat, kneeling and take the shot. For a moment the four seem frozen, alone and together amidst the ensuing chaos of the world around them.
I had followed this story for months and had seen footage of boats coming in. I knew the statistics. But it was not until this moment that the questions in my mind crystallised in all their depth and urgency. To think of all this family must have been through to spur them on this journey; to leave everything they knew behind for a foreign and uncertain future. At the end of the day, it was clear these people just wanted to stay safe, and together.
First steps in Europe
Lesbos now receives upwards of 7,000 such arrivals a day — that’s 200,000 for October alone. The onset of winter shows no signs of a slower influx. Most passengers are younger families or teenagers, hailing from war-torn Syria and Afghanistan or ISIS-fraught Iraq. Often crammed in groups of 60-70, they make their way on flimsy rubber dinghies — intended for only 20 passengers — across choppy waters from Izmir, on the Turkish coast.
Local smugglers who organise this journey are spoken of as violent and unpredictable, demanding up to €1,500 per passenger for the one hour journey. They choose a rider, seemingly at random, to man the motor, and equip the others with cheap, swimming pool life vests and plastic whistles to wave down the coast guard should their engine fail. A vague direction is pointed out and they are set on their way.
After three days of covering several incoming boats — amidst much jubilation and relief — it became easy to lose sight of the true danger involved. It was over dinner after our third, long day that our waiter relayed the news solemnly — at least seven refugees, including a mother, a newborn baby and three young children, had drowned after their wooden boat and a coast guard vessel collided. That could have been any one of the people we had shared stories and tea with over the past days: the smiling Afghan boy, shivering and wrapped in golden foil, whose first instinct was to offer me a bite of the chocolate bar a volunteer had given him; the Syrian sisters huddled on the shore with their children in hand, FaceTiming concerned relatives back home.
Tragically it’s no surprise that over 3,000 migrants have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean this year: Lesbos continues to see drownings every week. On September 2nd, the statistic was controversially humanised by the death of Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach, becoming a symbol of the plight of asylum seekers fleeing war.
Indeed the world’s attention may have moved from the constant stream of boats to border battles in the Balkans and unrest in Slovenia and the Czech Republic. However, our collective humanitarian failure and the EU’s reluctance to act remain most conspicuous on the Mediterranean front.
On Lesbos’ shores the aid presence on the ground remains relatively small. Teams of volunteers, from organisations including 4 Brothers and A Friend, the Kempsons, Lighthouse and Starfish patrol the northern coastline between Skala Sikamineas and Molyvos where boats arrive throughout the day. Larger organisations such as the IRC, MSF, Save the Children, Mercy Corps and the UN then provide severely limited bus services to the official Kara Tepe and Moria processing centres. Those who don’t make the buses have to endure the 70 km walk instead.
Arriving at the makeshift camps, exhausted and hungry, people begin to face their next struggle — Europe’s gruelling bureaucracy.
The sun has just left the zenith as we arrive at camp Moria, 3 km outside Mytilene. It is a sweltering day, probably one of the last ones this year. The nights are already getting chilly, and too cold for the small children here to be sleeping outside. Soon, when winter comes, the makeshift shelters in the camp won’t provide enough protection from the elements.
The sunlight is dazzling. I squint my eyes to make out the blue UNHCR emblem on the big, white tent by the entrance as we walk up the dusty path leading up to the camp — the temporary home of non-Syrian, mainly Afghan refugees.
Waiting under the sun
Brightly coloured clothes are drying on barbed wire fences. They are billowing peacefully in the wind that carries a sharp and rancid smell over from the toilets, some of which are no more than broken stone walls around pieces of soil.
I can hear the laughter of some children playing hide and seek. Others have found joy in drawing images into the sandy ground on the hillside where most of the camp’s small tents are sitting. Putting up plastic tarps and stretching drawstrings between bush branches and tree limbs, parents are building provisional shelters for their families.
Walking through the rudimentary camp we can feel the initial euphoria and relief upon arrival slowly evaporating. Hundreds of refugees are densely huddled up in the registration line all around the official campsite building, a former military base complex with a capacity to harbour 410 migrants. Only five people a time are allowed inside the building to get registered and the processing time varies between three to five days, if lucky. Most of the refugees have been queuing since the early morning hours in the scorching heat, guarded by heavily armed policemen, just to get stamped approval to continue their journeys. What we didn’t know back then is that we would see some of the same faces again - soon to be sunken with exhaustion and disillusionment.
Escaping the reach of ISIS
During our time in the camps many refugees shared their stories and the adversity they experienced on their journey with us. Reza, an Iranian Kurd travelling with his son and wife, touched us with his story.
Reza’s home, Kermānschāh, has become a hotbed for ISIS recruitment. He worked here as an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) teacher and it wasn’t long before local government forces arrived, demanding he convince his students to fight for Daesh (ISIS). After they threatened members of his family, he knew he had to escape. They fled in the hope of finding peace in Germany. Traffickers charged him €1500 per person to bring his family to Turkey, where he was asked to pay another €1500 for each passenger to board one of the overcrowded rubber dinghies.
With teary eyes and a broken voice, Reza explains he had to leave his 17-year-old daughter behind in Turkey because he simply didn’t have enough money to pay for four people to cross the Aegean. He hopes the German government will help him reunite his family.
Reza has €60 left in his pockets and I can’t bring myself to tell him that the money won’t even pay for the ferry to Athens.
The morning after meeting Reza, we make our way to Kara Tepe, a camp for Syrian refugees just outside Mytilene. Walking up the camp, we begin to understand references to the “different classes of refugees” in this crisis; why there had been reports of clashes between Syrians and Afghans; and why some refugees feel the international community cares less about their suffering.
Until last year, Afghans were the largest global group of refugees with 2.6 million people on the move. Even now, they make up the second largest refugee population after Syrians in Europe, and in theory are equally eligible to seek asylum in legal terms. This year however has seen debates rage amongst receiving countries over the de facto eligibility of asylum seekers from different war zones. Whereas Syria is engulfed in a civil war nation-wide, some areas in Afghanistan like Kabul and Herat are considered statistically safer than Kandahar and Kunduz.
Receiving countries in Europe have thus started giving preference blanketly to Syrian asylum seekers over Afghans, for instance in Germany and even the UK. What this equates to is a startling discrepancy between the legal arguments for claiming refugee status and the realistic prospects of this status being granted.
Just two weeks ago we had seen pictures of an overcrowded and squalid camp. Now Kara Tepe, which can officially host 1,000 refugees, looks relatively clean in comparison. The United Nations and other non-governmental organisations had clearly made a bigger effort here than in Moria to provide living and sanitation facilities.
Souvid and I are sitting in one of the small white UNHCR tents. The floor is covered with cardboard and 10 young men from Syria give us an inviting smile. When we ask for their names we are told they can’t tell us their real names. Even across the Aegan they are still gripped by the fear of their government and are afraid of repercussions for political dissent in case of being denied asylum in Europe.
“What should I call you then? Just make up a name.”
“Ahmed Ali it is.”
When asked why he decided to leave Ahmed starts telling us that he and his traveling companions had tried to escape Syria’s seemingly never-ending civil war that erupted in early 2011 during the wave of uprisings that swept North Africa and the Middle East.
“Life in Syria is really hard, life is impossible there. There are many militias that want us to fight for them, but we don’t want to fight, we just want to live.”
After almost five years of insecurity, chaos and destruction, Ahmed, like most of his compatriots, has lost faith in the possibility of any imminent peace. He spoke only of his people’s suffering and the constant fear in their lives.
Thinking back, I still don’t know how exactly we all ended up sharing a hearty laugh only half an hour later. Despite everything they had been through, somehow these men had not lost their humour.
We asked them where they were hoping to go and, like so many others, they told us they were traveling to Germany. Word of mouth recommendations had clearly made the Federal Republic the most sought after destination for the refugees.
I can’t help but smile when Ahmed tells me, “you know, in Syria, everybody likes Angela Merkel, they see her as the president of Syria, not of Germany”.
“Back home, I spent 4 years studying English; had I known there’d be a civil war in Syria I would have studied German!”
Two of his travelling companions are speaking Arabic to Ahmed, who blushes a little before revealing that he has a bit of a strange question to relay:
“In Syria you have to pay to marry, you know, to the parents …. How much is it in Germany?”
Souvid and I burst into laughter. I tell him that there are no dowries and am rewarded by a joint sigh of relief and lit-up faces.
“Also, we marry for love... well, most of the time.”, I add jestingly.
With a whimsical smile on his face, one of the men asks, “Four right?”
“No no no, just ONE! You marry just one woman.” Tears of amusement start welling up.
“What? Just one?”, they exclaim.
“It’s illegal to have more than one!”
“Oh... to be honest, in Syria we usually only have one wife, but legally you can have four if you want...”.
“But please, don’t tell my wife. If she thinks I have remarried she will swim all the way from Syria to Germany just to beat me!”
Humanity amidst turmoil
Throughout our time in the camp I shook countless hands, was invited into numerous tents and offered the last bottles of water people had on them. We listened to innumerable stories of people’s lives back home, their saddening human tragedies and hopes for a better future. Most of the refugees we talked to had lost everything they owned in a blink of an eye, had feared for their lives and had suffered the loss of friends or family.
In the midst of all the suffering, hardship and pain of the refugees, however, we had the privilege to get to know kindness, openness and hospitality in human form, and had one of the most heart-warming days on our journey.
Across green rolling hills and narrow bridges we drove from Skopje to the village of Gevgelija in the south-east of Macedonia bordering Greece. Here there was little to see beyond the tell-tale signs of a life on the move: tent frames, plastic bottles, bags and clothing strewn along the ground near the train station. At the station we caught a train full of refugees preparing to leave and began taking photos before we were stopped by an irate police officer who forcefully pushed down Melanie’s camera. We saw the refugees off as they waved back to us, some tired and some grinning holding out peace signs from the gaps in the windows shouting “Thank you, welcome! Thank you”.
We then headed North to the Serbian- Macedonian border. An elderly taxi driver who insisted we would see many refugees in Preševo drove us across the border. True to his word, we followed a road leading up to a vista of beautiful fields dotted with coloured tents overlooked by a mosque. As we stepped out of the car we saw refugees resting in the fields over blankets and lighting fires for the night ahead. Further into the camp we were greeted to the roar of hundreds of people growing increasingly impatient to get their documents signed, waiting behind barricades and rows of armed police. An atmosphere of frustration and hopelessness resounded amongst the swelling crowd.
A group of Afghans keen to share their experiences beckoned us over. Keeping a low voice as if expecting officers to overhear, one of them revealed that police had beaten him and extorted money (around €300) as well as others at night. His friends nodded in quiet agreement at what appeared to be an accepted and routine experience along their journey. A Syrian told me Preševo was a camp of two faces; there was the face of kindness shown by some of the local minority Albanian population, where a kinship formed from suffering a similar situation themselves in the early nineties. The bond of a common religion too had also spurred them to donate clothes, shelter and food to the refugees. This was contrasted to the other face of the camp, the face of Serb authorities, a few of which bribed, beat, and showed hostility towards the refugees.
As your eyes scan the beautiful fields, mounds of plastic bottles and carrier bags frequently interrupt the scene. The camp clearly lacked adequate sanitation facilities, yet amidst the chaos and squalor of Preševo there were still glimmers of hope.
I happened to bump into a young Afghan refugee I had photographed after he arrived off a boat in Lesbos. His name was Ali and had made the long journey here from Kabul with a few friends and intended to reach Germany. Although he spoke little English he was always willing to talk and never failed to offer food he had with him; despite being thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, Afghan hospitality had not left him. Regardless of Preševo’s conditions and when he had landed cold and wet in Lesbos, Ali always had a steady and calm smile on his face. I had now seen him three times along different legs of the journey. His light-hearted manner seemed to make him popular as he appeared to know half the camp wherever he was.
Yet Ali was an exception. I had met others from Lesbos and felt distraught at seeing their expressions change from sheer joy at making the crossing in Greece, to dismay as they realised the journey was going to be full of uncertainty. Preševo had tainted many with a sense of failing optimism.
It’s a two hour drive from Belgrade towards Serbia’s northern border with Croatia. The capital’s decaying, brutalist architecture gives way to endless sun-kissed fields of drying wheat that only twenty years ago had witnessed their own Balkan conflict and mass exodus of refugees.
Until weeks ago, the border town of Šid, Serbia saw several thousands cross over to Croatia towards the nearest train station at Tovarnik. In mid September, after Hungary closed its borders, refugees began swerving west through Serbia to main crossings like Šid. But after only a week, seven of such eight road crossings into Croatia were closed off, as it became increasingly obvious that local authorities were woefully understaffed and overwhelmed.
Iconic scenes of over 2,000 refugees stranded in no-man’s land between Croatia and Serbia began spreading on social media. Tensions rose and many attempted to cross illegally through wheat fields. The Croatian police struggled to find peaceful solutions as Tovarnik train station’s barren platforms and sparse sanitation facilities became inundated with waste.
Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojić voiced his country’s frustration, sending another heavy blow to negotiations by EU leaders on finding a migration strategy: “The flow of migrants from Greece must be stopped.... It is absolutely unacceptable to have Greece emptying its refugee camps and sending people towards Croatia via Macedonia and Serbia.” While Croatia is a member of the EU it is not part of its Schengen zone of borderless travel.
The political game of passing the buck eventually manifested in policy too. Croatia reopened borders and it’s military set up a transit camp in nearby Opatovac; but most resources were devoted to shuttling migrants north — on trains towards whichever Hungarian or Slovenian borders happened to be open at the time.
The most common trail now winds past Berkasovo, on the fringes of Serbian Šid, where the UNHCR and other aid organisations accompany refugees across the border to a Croatian police escort. They in turn place them on buses heading to Opatovac where they wait for trains leaving Tovarnik the following morning.
Today, much of the disarray here and earlier chaos of Preševo seems a thing of the past. Tovarnik station sees police and IRC accompanied buses arriving at regular intervals throughout the day. Orderly queues are formed, food and water is handed out and the police handle the crowd movements with restraint and co-ordination. Tellingly, none of the 1,000 passengers or police officers know where any one of the trains are heading.
Opatovac, some 12 km away, seems like a military fortress at first sight, with rows of armoured SUVs, tall fences and boots on the ground. A spokesperson (Helena Biococ) offered us ‘a guided tour’ of the facility but we were denied access to the refugee holding area on grounds of ‘security risk’. After the negative press received in previous weeks it’s clear that Croatian officials are wary of further disorganisation or tensions being exposed.
What remains impressive is the efficiency with which the daily stream of 2,000 migrants arriving in Croatia are now processed and transported further into the EU. It’s clear, however, that this new found efficiency is less reflective of a more humane system or long-term strategy, but rather political expediency.
In the wake of the country’s upcoming election — one particularly fraught with disagreements over migrant policy — the centre-right HDZ opposition parties campaigned on stricter border controls and quotas.
Last week also saw more camps cropping up and tensions flaring along the nearby Croat-Slovenian border. STA news quoted Slovenian President Borut Pahor saying “This is impossible. Slovenia cannot become a pocket in which refugees would be stuck if the Austrian, Hungarian and German borders close, because the country could not handle that.”
Unwanted and unsupported, the refugees seemed to be pushed more and more systematically towards other borders and other camps.
We arrive at Keleti station at around 6 AM to find little evidence of refugees having stayed here despite weeks of headlines showing a station seemingly bursting at the seams. The night before a huge cleanup operation had taken place — even the graffiti containing messages of hope and well wishes for the refugees had been washed off the old station walls.
We were told special trains were taking refugees to the borders of the country. Hungary’s approach to the situation appeared to be a clinical,“out of sight, out of mind”. Trains were efficiently transporting them from one end of the country to the other.
Meanwhile, anti-migrant political posters were plastered onto billboards by Keleti station’s bus stop. After spending some hours in Budapest we took a train to Austria to document what would be the final leg of the journey for many refugees wanting to settle in Germany. At the station in Austria we talked and photographed many who had waited patiently to begin the last stretch.
Striding into the dark
In recent months, the refugee crisis has been met with inadequate responses from European governments as well as general confusion. The scale of people fleeing conflict from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea was unprecedented. In more recent weeks an informal humanitarian corridor has opened up, propped up by a network of NGO’s and partial government acceptance, the latter of which is fickle. Nonetheless, some sort of system that is relatively efficient (at transporting people at least) has emerged and we saw signs of this as we progressed up the migration route.
Upon our arrival in Nickelsdorf a cold night had fallen on the sleepy Austrian town that borders Hungary. Having heard reports that special trains carrying refugees across the country arrive in the early hours of the morning, we decided to drive over to Hegyeshalom station which lay on the Austro-Hungarian border, reaching there just as the first train had pulled in. As the police pried the train doors open, the enormity of the crisis became apparent with hundreds disembarking and streaming down the platform.
I jumped aboard a carriage when the guards weren’t looking and took a few photos inside the train. Items of clothing, blankets and waste packaging were left behind alongside the smell of damp clothes and people crammed in close quarters for hours.
The arrival of these special trains in the early hours of the morning were reminiscent of the situation we were greeted with in Hungary — the idea that so long as refugees were out of sight, they would be out of mind for every day citizens going about their daily lives. The notion that countries believed they could absolve themselves from dealing with the crisis by providing transportation for the refugees from one end of the country to be disposed of at the border left me with a sinking feeling.
The refugees — tired from their train journey of 16 hours — were to then begin an arduous walk of nearly 5 km from Nickelsdorf station to the crossing where they would receive medical attention and food. We followed the refugees along this walk to try and capture their feelings. Due to the vast number of people, the path was clear but many sections were walked in the pitch black surroundings of the cold night, lit only by the occasional passing police car or local people and volunteers that kindly offered lifts for refugees with children and elderly people to the transit station.
I remember walking behind a Syrian man with his young baby daughter flung across his back. She stared at me with quiet exhaustion. I had never seen a baby look so utterly exhausted and confused. I thought for a while about how much lay ahead for her and what her future in Europe would be. I felt painfully aware throughout the entirety of the trip that at the end of the day if we got in trouble with authorities we had our European passports enabling us right of entry into any border and had the certainty of a safe and warm room. This right we had acquired simply through being born within an European country, for others to achieve this they had to go through all the ordeals we were witnessing and more.
As the path progressed, like an apparition in the cold black night, a railroad crossing suddenly lit up into view. The barriers moved down and police cars swooped in to the scene. Officers got out and began shouting at a group of refugees who hadn’t realised they were standing in by the middle of the tracks. There were shouts in Arabic and broken English instructions being yelled out by the police to go back behind the barriers. A whirlwind of confusion ensued as a mass of bodies clamoured to move either side of the rails as the train lights beamed increasingly brighter across the tracks. I stood next to two Syrians who were yelling at their friend to stay behind the barrier as he was in the group caught in the middle. Officers and other refugees forcefully pushed the group back as the train sped closer. I took a photo of the two Syrians next to me who stared ahead intently for their friend as the train roared passed, their faces unwavering and unblinking into the glow of the red signal light.
A few more miles into the walk we arrived with a sense of relief at the transit point where food and warm tea was handed out. Yet the refugees did not linger and pushed forward with urgency. The vast lines of people combined with the megaphones echoing through the cold still morning air directing refugees to the coaches and taxis gave the place an almost dreamlike quality.
Another group of refugees moved towards the barriers where they could pay taxis that would also take them further along the road. Thousands of weary bodies continued to quietly trudge across the ground towards yet another destination with unknown obstacles. For the refugees, uncertainty was always just a corner away.
We are in Passau, an idyllic getaway of colourful townhouses and cobbled, autumn-struck streets in the forests of Lower Bavaria, Germany.
At first sight, this quiet place with a population of a mere 50,000 shows no signs of having recorded the highest influx of migrants and refugees along the German-Austrian border area. Yet, the small town is increasingly finding itself becoming the new turnstile of this refugee crisis. On October 9 alone, 5,200 out of 6,000 refugees reaching Bavaria arrived in the Greater Passau area. On the weekend of the 16th, the border by Passau had to be closed temporarily since the town found itself unable to cope with this rapid inundation of refugees from Austria. The following week hundreds of refugees were reported to have been forced to spend the night outdoors at the German-Austrian border by the Simbach and Branau crossing.
The situation now remains tense, with the number of refugees entering Germany showing no signs of abating, and the consequent capacities in Passau and surrounding towns being exhausted. The German press has openly criticised Austrian authorities, blaming their police for failing to comply with the agreement to let no more than 50 refugees per hour pass through important German border crossings; in some instances they have even posed the question of whether Austrians are in fact the the main traffickers in this crisis.
After weeks of finger-pointing, both countries have agreed to limit the numbers of open border crossings for refugees to 5 in an attempt to get the situation under control.
Germany’s open door policy
It is becoming more evident by the day that European Union is failing to tackle this refugee crisis in a united effort. Earlier this month the EU interior ministers had voted by a majority to relocate 120,000 refugees in within Europe.
Despite this formal agreement, only a miniscule number of refugees has been resettled and Germany still carries the main burden in providing refuge for those fleeing the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.
Official predictions of 800,000 asylum seekers being expected to arrive in Germany in 2015, were surpassed in October; newer estimates now speak of 1.2 to 1.5 million. In comparison to other countries, Germany might be in a position where the ageing demographic and lack of young, skilled people allow for a greater capacity to take in refugees: (Experts from the German Institute of Employment Research (IAB) claimed that German labour market needs 533,000 new workers a year in order for the country to maintain its economic growth). However, as the strained situation at German border crossings shows, the country will not be able to cushion the refugee crisis alone, which seems to be unfolding at an increasingly higher speed.
Internal Political Struggles
While Merkel has made it clear she intends to stick to her “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”) policy to keep letting refugees in, she is facing an ever stronger growing opposition by her conservative allies within her own ranks.
Earlier this month, Bavaria’s state premier Horst Seehofer (CSU), threatened that the state would take unilateral action to turn back asylum-seekers at the border as “self-defence measures to limit immigration”. He later set his Chancellor an ultimatum to significantly limit the flow of refugees into Bavaria from the Austrian borders by November 1 — a warning that Merkel has characteristically shrugged off.
The most recent turbulence in Merkel’s agenda came as her own Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière falsely claimed that the rights of Syrian refugees would significantly be downgraded from a de facto three years to “subsidiary protection that is limited to a period and without any family unification”. The quickly back-tracked announcement on Friday showed panic at the top in Berlin only intensifying the sense of confusion and knee-jerk responses over refugees.
One step closer to a new life
Passau mainly functions as a “waiting area”, a first stop in Germany from which refugees are sent to the reception centres of the 16 federal states and channelled into an ordered asylum procedure. For most refugees, the joy and relief of finally having made it all the way to the Germany is tainted with the uncertainty of whether or not, and where they will be able to stay. At this point, asylum seekers have no influence on where they will be sent within German — regardless of whether their family is already waiting somewhere in the country.
A few weeks ago, when the municipal sports halls serving as sleeping accommodations began bursting at the seams, the town hired an automobile warehouse, with a capacity to temporarily harbour up to 1,500 refugees.
Entering Hall 2 of the migrant shelter, we spot signs of organisation and efficiency alongside an attempt to create a welcoming environment. The big hall is divided up into squares housing about 1,000 green camp beds. Most of the refugees have already packed up their few belongings and are queuing for breakfast along a wall decorated with children’s drawings. People are wearing white wristbands with a number stating the square they are accommodated in and symbols indicating which meals individuals have received.
Hall 3, the so-called ‘clearing station’ is used as a small reception centre where 250 migrants are registered, processed and sent off into the asylum procedure. In the clearing station a second set of wristbands is used, labelled “normal person”, “young person traveling by themselves”, and “trafficker” - I can’t shake a slight sensation of discomfort. To simplify and speed up the process, people are given numbers codifying their countries of origin and family relationships.
People seem slightly more relaxed knowing that for many, the journey has almost come to an end; the chance of a new life, awaits them. There are young brothers cuddled up in the linens on the camp beds, a group of children are balancing balloons on the tip of their nose, and a young mother rocking her baby is watching an Arabic soap opera on her smartphone.
We exit the pick-up area and watch the next group of refugees climb onto a bus. We hope it brings them one step closer to finally calling this country their new home.
A red wash glints off the town’s stone cathedral at dusk down to the cobbled alleys lined with maple and chestnut trees. This is Worms, an idyllic suburban town situated on the Upper Rhine, and our last stop on this journey.
On the outskirts, a green, five story building looks somewhat out of place on the Klosterstraße, decrepit and next to the remains of a recently burnt out warehouse. It has been a temporary home for asylum seekers for years.
Inside we meet Mustafa from Egypt, and Ahmad and Mouhammad from Syria. All three have had to leave their families behind like so many others fleeing war and persecution. The risks of travelling with children were too great and the costs too high. If and when they will be reunited remains uncertain. It is not only the thousands of miles that separate them from their loved ones, but also bureaucratic obstacles that need to be overcome.
Ahmad from Kubane was married when his country was burning and bombs were hailing down from the sky. With the structures of the state having broken down, marriage in the registry office was not an option. They had to make do with a simple ceremony, without signatures, official listings or legal documentation.
Ahmad has been here for two months now. He is waiting for his appointment — on April 28, 2016 — in Trier to put in an application for asylum. As an asylum seeker from Syria, he will be granted refugee status, but bringing his family over to Germany will prove to be extremely difficult without the necessary documentation. It will be another month before he is eligible to work and many more before commanding the German language skills usually needed to do so.
The room is bare and cold in the pale afternoon light. A small cooker stacked with dirty dishes stands to the right and three simple beds tuck into each corner. Mustafa is darting nervously as he speaks, clouded in grey smoke from his cigarette with a glass of fast emptying wine in hand.
“In comparison to the conditions I lived under in Trier,”, he says “this is paradise”. In Trier, Rhineland-Palatinate’s reception centre, “you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t go to the toilet. Imagine this”. During his 15 day stay there, he and other refugees had to sleep in gardens, or corridors, and the showers for 1,000 people were only accessible for three hours a day.
Here, in the Klosterstraße, they face other challenges keeping them from finding their peace of mind. Boredom fills their time with a sense of dreariness, despair and powerlessness about the situation they find themselves in. Their days revolve around smoking and calling home to make sure their wives and children are still alive.
An unexpected joke clears the air and Mustafa looks up, inspired and nostalgic as he recounts an Egyptian proverb. He describes how a bird “dances” during the moments after its throat has been slit: “[It is] like the bird is laughing when she dies”. Dark yet vivid, it is an allegory of how one copes in times of tragedy; he explains how they have to find their moments of joy during despair. “We laugh to escape, so we don’t think about our problems.”
“When we are all alone, every person is in his bed, we look to the ceiling, and begin to remember all our problems...I think of my family, my baby, my wife, my situation and I can’t sleep. I take two tablets. I am sleeping until the morning, maybe 4-5 hours. I wake up and begin my day with a drink.”
Ahmad, Mouhammad and Mustafa fled the hell of civil war at home, hoping for a better future in Europe. No barrel bombs are threatening their lives anymore, instead they remain tormented by nightmares and sorrow for their families — they certainly have not found peace.
We shake hands and say our goodbyes.
Our journey has ended here. But for Mustafah, Ahmad and Mouhammad their arrival in Germany and attempts to settle only mark the beginning of many more chapters to come. Their story and that of millions of people is not finished yet.
A Long Road Ahead
For most, reaching their destination does not mark the end of their journey. Many sleepless nights and days of frustration will follow before refugees are reunited with their families. Even then, the sadness that comes with leaving one’s home country and watching it sink deeper into conflict is inconsolable.
The conflicts from various countries have left indelible scars — both physical and psychological, and the refugees’ future in Europe remains uncertain.
So long as the existing policies and attitudes towards refugees remain unchanged and the root causes of their displacement unresolved, stories such as these will continue.
What can you do?
A range of NGOs and charities have initiated campaigns targeted specifically at aiding the plight of refugees. Here are some organisations that outline where your money can go:
Migrant Offshore Aid Station: The charity runs independent rescue boats to rescue migrants at risk of drowning.
Médecins Sans Frontières: The humanitarian agency has three rescue ships in the Mediterranean.
Aylan Kurdi Fund: A specific fund named in honour of the drowned boy was set up within 24 hours of the circulation photographs of his body emerging. All proceeds go to the humanitarian agency Hand in Hand for Syria.
Refugee Council: A donation of £100 could pay for the education and travel for two children for a week.
Unicef: The UN’s children’s charity is providing life-saving supplies such as clean water, medicine and psychological support. A donation of £9 could provide an emergency water kit for a family.
Save the Children: A donation of £50 could buy two hygiene kits including soap, towels and toothbrushes.
British Red Cross: A donation of £30 could buy 28 mats to help Syria refugees cope with the cold.
Islamic Relief: Three families could be fed for a month on a donation of £210, the charity says.
The crowdfunding website Just Giving has a list of specific appeals for migrants in Calais. It includes one of students trying to raise £750 to buy mobile phones, footballs, camping equipment, dictionaries, storage boxes, sanitary items and waterproof clothing.
The UNHCR is running camps, providing shelter and aid to refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, as well as helping refugees across Europe.