An international conference on the situation of Syrian refugees has been arranged for 28th October in Berlin. Yet in view of the magnitude of the crisis, this is a mere drop in the ocean. Western states keep concentrating on ways to ease the symptoms of the crisis which they cannot gain control over without political underpinning.
“Can you put in a good word for us?” a Syrian friend asked me in spring 2012. “My aunt wants to travel to Germany but we have no idea how to get an appointment.” At the time, the German embassy in Damascus had already closed down. However, the allocation of appointments continued to be operated through a Syrian call centre. The call was attached to a fee, which meant that an application could only be made with a specially purchased phone card. “Nobody knew where those cards could be obtained. The usual shops didn’t have them anymore. We commissioned a lawyer to find one for us. After a few weeks, he gave us our money back because there was simply no way to get hands on those cards.” By chance, the Michatis family (this and all other names have been changed to ensure confidentiality) came into possession of a phone card: “One day, at this kiosk in the suburbs! The owners were astonished because they thought the cards had already expired and they were about to throw them out.”
The card system meant that Syrians could not make calls from abroad in order to make an appointment. In this respect, some were quick to suspect that Germany was hiding behind bureaucratic obstacles so as to limit the number of Syrians admitted to the process. Insofar, it was a relief at first when the embassy abandoned the phone cards in favour of an online system through which appointments could be booked. However, the relief was not of lasting nature: no matter how often new appointments became available, they were reserved in an instant.
An Online System for the Granting of Visas and New Issues
“Die Welt” and “Spiegel-Online” reported dirty practices - they alleged that “hackers” had used the website in Syria and in Lebanon in an attempt to sell the appointments underhand. There was no need for sophisticated computer skills though. If anything, it needed patience and frequent observation which paid off quickly as the visa appointments could be sold at high prices due to the rising demand. A lucrative business in times when the political and economic situation in Syria became more and more devastating and caused the demand for visas to increase. However, there were certainly other factors that played a part: the German accommodation programmes raised the hopes of many who were expecting an easier way to travel to Germany. These expectations were further fuelled by the communication of the Department for Foreign Affairs. The department apologized on their own web page as well as on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for delays in the processing of applications as their capacities had been reached due to the programme and the high number of requests for it. German authorities were confronted with the allegation that the problem – though identified – had not been dealt with for too long. If that indeed was the case is hard to tell from a local perspective. Whoever witnessed the masses of people temporarily gathering in front of the German embassy will have no trouble imagining how great the challenge is. Anyone who knows how arduous it is to make one’s way to the Beirut suburb of Rabieh for an application from Syria will be quick to agree that the idea of an online system is a good one – given that it works, which apparently was not the case here.
Omitted from the articles in the German press was this: these problems exclusively affected applicants for tourist or business visas, and not the federal and state Humanitarian Admission Programme for refugees which continued to operate via individual interviews.
Alternative Procedures: Travel Visas and Humanitarian Admission Programme
One issue with the relocation to Germany results from the nature of the undertaking: it is an unusual situation to have an accommodation programme on the one hand that grants Syrian and Palestinian citizens from Syria permanent residence in Germany, but also to have the regular distribution of business and visiting visas continue on the other hand. This means applicants must choose one of these somewhat mutually exclusive options. In order to qualify for the programme, proof has to be delivered as to the virtual impossibility to remain in Syria or the region, the urgency of the situation and the strong ties to Germany which all together might qualify the person in question for permanent residence. Whoever decides to apply for a temporary visiting visa, on the contrary, must convincingly portray that he or she is “rooted” in the region and has good reasons to return. All in all, 20,000 acceptances have been issued at state level. Federal states have agreed to accommodate another 6000 people. As the extent of the programme is out of proportion to the high demand and as family reunions and the selection by the UN according to need are most likely to be successful, many are left with no other option than to apply for a regular travel visa. These cases are accompanied by more or less well-founded doubts as to the true motivation for the temporary stay.
This tension could only be lifted by making a decision for either the one or the other, which would certainly not be in the best interest of applicants for the respective visas.
The sale of the available visa appointments was however not the last piece in the chain of profit creation. Hopes and the desperate search for ways out of the difficult situation in Syria turn potential applicants into compliant victims of the general rumour mill.
Some applicants made their way to the German embassy, only to be hit by the sudden realization that they had become the victims of a different fraud. They had paid money for a paper that looked official at first sight, but really promised them an appointment that never existed.
Accommodation of Syrian Refugees in the EU and in Germany in Comparison
The number of refugees to be brought into the country through the accommodation programme lies at 20,000 in total on the federal level, with an additional 6,000 in the single provinces, and makes Germany the pioneer in the EU, welcoming nearly double as many refugees as all 27 other states put together. However, this is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the number of refugees that were accommodated in the region’s neighbouring states. By now, 1 million Syrian refugees have entered Lebanon with its approximately 4 million inhabitants and the situation is similar in Turkey and Jordan. 26,000 – that is the number of Syrians that at times have crossed the Lebanese border within the space of a month. Yet Europe, domestically concerned with an economic crisis and a shift to the right which provides a basis for xenophobia, is seemingly not prepared to become more active in this matter. The accommodation programmes of other states are limited to just a few hundred individuals. Even some distant parts of the Global South, specifically Uruguay which has offered to take in 120 Syrian refugees, have made more generous offers than European states.
Sweden, which is held in high regard amongst Syrians due to its politics, also does not withstand scrutiny. The integration process of asylum seekers from Syria is better prepared there. However, that only holds true for those who manage to travel to Sweden by crooked means. A present for the human trafficking mafia, a high price to pay for all those who are forced to trust them with their lives.
The Situation of Those Who Have Fled from Syria to Lebanon
It is in the best interest of Western states that refugees stay in the region, and that matches the endeavours of many Syrians: they are aware of the fact that the West is not waiting for them, and that the possibility of arriving there safely is only the first step of a challenging new start. Some do not feel like refugees as long as they stay in one of Syria’s neighbouring countries. “I’ve been in Lebanon for nearly two years now and have long stopped travelling to Damascus,” Roula says, “but up until recently, when asked where I live, I still answered I commute between Syria and here.” Many Syrians in Lebanon feel as if their stay is only temporary and as if they could return any time. They still have parents, siblings, relatives and friends back in Syria. It is still possible to book bus rides from Beirut’s bus stations to Damascus, Latakia and other Syrian cities, but what lies only a few kilometres away seems as distant as the back of the moon for many – unattainable. At the same time, their stay in Lebanon is characterized by insecurity. This is the only neighbouring country that keeps its borders open as far as possible; however, only few manage to obtain residence or work permits. Some live off their savings which quickly diminish in view of the high living costs in Lebanon. Many struggle along by working in their own small shops, on construction sites, as day labourers or as errand boys for small grocery stores.
Some are afraid of registering with the UN as living in Lebanon, but many are aware that the support the UN could provide them with would hardly be enough to help them make ends meet. Their programmes are hopelessly underfunded. The situation is especially devastating for children, youths and students. Their traditional Arabic education is not compatible with the multilingual Lebanese curriculum; school and university fees in the country’s largely privatised education system are unattainable for many families. Begging women and children who sell chewing gum or roses or offer their services as shoeshine boys have become a more and more common sight in the streets of Lebanese cities.
Even those in more privileged positions who, by means of their qualifications or contacts, are able to build up a better existence, are faced with several problems: those who attempt to found a new organisation have a hard time getting it registered and sanctions, that are actually targeted against the Syrian regime, make it impossible for many Syrians to even open a bank account because they are met with international suspicion, which in turn discourages Lebanese banks.
They are well aware of the fact that Lebanon could pull the thin rug out from under their feet overnight and still, many feel as if they would be burning their bridges for good if they left for Europe. It is not the illusion of a land of plenty that motivates them, but rather existential fear that makes them turn to every last resort, the lack of perspective and bitter realization that they, at least in the near future, will not have the opportunity to return to and continue with their previous lives.
This means an enormous strain on families, whether in Syria or in the diaspora. “My husband, my sister and I agreed that our parents and siblings cannot stay in Syria much longer,” Rania says. “My sister in Frankfurt and we in London, we have done our utmost to get all the paperwork for a family reunion. We ourselves aren’t that well off, but sending money back to Syria, we see it as our obligation! We are family after all. But my father is convinced that Syria is his country, the country he was born in and the country he will die in. My mother is scared of a fresh start but we managed to persuade her.” They had already made it to Jordan and had to hold out there for some weeks until they received the last pieces of documentation. “My brother then said: ‘Just look at our life here. We can live much better in Syria with the same amount of money – we’ll stick it out and wait until it’s all over.” They then returned to Syria and their chance to leave the region was lost. Rania shakes her head: “First we bent over backwards to make it possible, then we talked and talked, trying to convince them – they just didn’t want to leave anymore.” Rania’s sister soon after found a temporary job in Amman. “Imagine that, when the moment was right she chickened out, and then she calls me and tells me she has found a job as a stewardess with a Scandinavian airline and plans to seek asylum in Sweden. I asked, ‘Which airline is it? I’ve never heard of them, have you checked if they even exist?’ The supposed airline never asked for an interview, but wanted to know my sister’s dress size, ‘For the uniform!’ – That stinks to high heaven! When I said that to her, she became angry with me: ‘You just don’t want me to ever find something good by myself. If you’re having a go at this dream job, I’ll just book myself in on one of the smuggler boats.” Rania feels torn between her responsibility towards her family and the realization that she has reached the limits of what she can do for them.
The Business with Hardship
Real and fictitious visa appointments are by far not the only source of income for the crafty businessmen profiting from hardship. For a constantly increasing number of Syrian citizens is confronted with the problem of obtaining valid documents that allow them to travel in the first place. In order to cross the border to Lebanon, they only need an ID card. However, if they plan to go anywhere else they need a valid passport and in that, Syrian citizens are at the discretion of the Syrian authorities. The regime has always been known to deny disagreeable opponents a passport and arbitrarily banned people with passports from leaving the country.
This arbitrariness has facilitated the current situation even more. That affects particularly - but not exclusively – young men who have yet to serve military duty. Their passport is generally only renewed for the space of a few months, sometimes a year. Since the beginning of the revolution, it has become even more difficult especially, but not only, for them. The journey to the Syrian embassy has developed into a nerve-racking experience. “They never tell you to your face that passport renewals are no longer done for political reasons,“ Hani tells us. “Instead they say, ‘No problem, but you will have to go to Damascus in order to clear up some things with the intelligence service there.’ I don’t feel safe here, but once I have crossed the border, there is no one who can help me.” For fear of imprisonment, he has instructed someone in Syria to apply for his passport renewal in his place. “If you can pay, you can get anything.” For several thousands of dollars, Hani eventually received a renewed passport. Some get genuine documents for their money, many receive counterfeit ones. What is good enough for foreign authorities, fails to get the owner past the Lebanese authorities. “I had a visa, a permanent one for the US, a renewed one for Europe. I was arrested during my departure from Beirut airport. At least I wasn’t deported, but I had to pay a 1000 euro fine,” Yahya says. The passport that cost him a small fortune has been confiscated by the Lebanese security services, which means he cannot even challenge the decision.
Many states of the international community have acknowledged the National Coalition as “one” or even “the” legitimate representation of the Syrian people. However, they have not equipped it with the power to issue travel documents. This means it is to be expected that more and more Syrians will be permanently trapped. It allows the regime to exert power over Syrian citizens, far beyond the borders of its own country, and furthermore to dictate the lives of those who see no future for themselves in Syria.
Given the high pressure placed on the countries in the region and as there is no end to this horrid situation in sight, the German government has organized a conference on the Syrian refugee situation in Berlin on 28th October. Its aim is to prompt other nations to also increase the number of Syrian refugees they take in permanently. That would be an improvement; however, it most likely will not lead to a significant increase in the numbers of refugees accommodated, an increase high enough that it could actually relieve the pressure resting on the countries in the region.
As long as there are no promising attempts to end the conflict, as long as the murders continue at large scale and unhindered, Syrians will be forced to search for a new existence elsewhere. It is now high time to at least tend to the millions of displaced persons. However, even more important than merely nursing the symptoms of the conflict is the earnest insistence on a political solution. Otherwise, the stream of Syrian refugees will not cease.
Translated from the German by Christine Kollmar