While refugee crisis roils EU, Spain and Portugal eagerly await 'their' Syrians

Despite tough economies and high unemployment, citizens of both countries say they want to help the refugees fleeing Mideast violence for Europe. So far, though, each has only taken in a few score.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
Members of Amnesty International sail the estuary of Bilbao on a small boat during a protest in support of refugees and migrants entering Europe, in Bilbao, northern Spain, in April 2016.

The four-bedroom apartment smells freshly painted, but it’s been almost eight months since its future residents were supposed to arrive.

Touched by the images of thousands of refugee families left without homes while escaping their war-torn countries, nun Laurinda Faria and the other Sisters Hospitallers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Portugal decided to give away empty apartments to help. The three remain empty, waiting for the refugees to come. 

Standing in the almost fully equipped kitchen of one apartment in Cacém, a 30-minute drive from Lisbon, the nun looks apologetically at the neatly tiled floor, the refurbished doors with no signs of dust, and bewails the fact there’s still no fridge, bed, or bathroom linens. 

“We spent nearly 3,500 euros ($3,900) tidying up this place. The only reason why it’s not totally ready right now is because we grew tired of being ready. We’ll keep on waiting,” she says, adding that it’s frustrating to be eager to help Europe’s refugees – but not able to get that help to the families who need it.

Those empty apartments are emblematic of the refugee situation in both Portugal and neighboring Spain. Despite tough economies and high unemployment, citizens of both countries say they want to help the refugees fleeing Mideast violence for Europe. A recent BBC World Service poll found Spain to be the most welcoming of all countries, with 84 percent of the population agreeing to take in Syrian refugees. The current mood in those two countries, those interviewed say, can best be described as wondering where the refugees are, after a year of waiting. 

In Madrid, lawyer José María Trillo-Figueroa sits on a park bench not far from the city hall, where a 13-by-26 foot banner proclaiming “Refugees Welcome” hangs. Last September, he took in a Syrian family that arrived in Madrid through southern Spain. He echoes the Portuguese nun's words about feeling useless: “I think that we will see citizens renting buses and driving on their own to Greece to tell these people they’re welcome in Spain.” 

The welcoming attitude on the Iberian Coast stands in contrast to most Central European countries, many of which have been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees seeking asylum and where support for ultra-right groups has surged in response. Although some anti-immigration remarks can be found on social media, the people of both Spain and Portugal have been overwhelmingly supportive of incoming refugees, perhaps due to their own histories of emigration and asylum seeking. It also may be partly because the refugees themselves – aware of the difficult economic conditions – prefer to press on to more prosperous countries such as Germany or Sweden.

Earlier this year, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa announced that Portugal was ready to take in as many as 10,000 refugees – more than double the 4,378 refugees allocated by the European Union relocation program. (Skeptics dubbed the move political and a way for the prime minister to implement his “turn the page on austerity” program.)

In Spain, after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy agreed to welcome less than half of the original 6,000 requested, Spaniards protested. Local authorities in Barcelona and Madrid called for cities across the country to provide shelter and aid to refugees, while Spaniards registered to have refugees stay as guests in their homes. Mr. Rajoy ended up accepting the requested EU refugee quota of 14,931, in addition to the 2,379 it initially agreed to accept.

People in both countries have expressed frustration and shame over the low number of arrivals. Portugal has taken in 263 refugees so far. Spain, a country of 46 million, has received 38. 

"There's no real political will to welcome the refugees in Spain," says Jaime Pons, a spokesman for the Jesuit Migrant Service in Spain. "Spain has an unemployment rate of 21 percent and there's the discourse that the refugee situation shouldn't be a priority right now."

'It's Europe. You're here.'

It looks like that’s about to change, at least in a modest way. Hundreds of refugees are expected to start arriving in both countries this week. Spain is set to welcome 200 relocated refugees from entry-point countries like Greece and Italy by the end of June. Portugal should welcome an additional 191 by the end of May. The shift reflects greater efforts in hotspots in the Greek islands and Italy, where security personnel and government officials from Portugal and Spain were sent to help, according to the Portuguese Refugee Council.

Bureaucracy and a lack of personnel in Italy and Greece have slowed the arrival of refugees to his country – not a lack of readiness, says Rui Marques, of the Refugee Support Platform in Portugal. “I’m proud of the fact that my country is sticking with what it agreed. Portugal is the third country in the EU that has made more places for refugees available,” he says.

All G.T. (the Monitor is using her initials to protect her anonymity) knew about Portugal in 2014 was that it would be easier to go through the airport security with fake EU passports. After fleeing Syria's civil war, her family had not planned to stay in Lisbon. It was only supposed to be a safe stopover for them and their little boy on their journey to Sweden. But she and her husband overlooked one detail: If you arrive in the European Union from abroad, airport personnel check all your documentation. So when G.T. was detained at the airport in a country which she knew nothing about, she despaired.

“I was devastated. I must have looked devastated because a lady at the airport stopped me before arresting me…. She said: ‘Look outside the window. What do you see?’ I glanced outside the window, ‘I only see the sky. What do you want me to see?’ She said: ‘It’s Europe. You’re here. Stop being so selfish and start thinking about your son.’ ” 

'Game over.'

Last year, Mr. Figueroa, the Spanish lawyer, took a Syrian couple with four children into his home. They didn’t want to stay in Madrid – they knew there were no jobs. They wanted to continue north to Germany.

All they could talk about was Germany, he says. But after they arrived in the city of Dortmund, they were forced to sleep in a gym and their situation remained precarious. After three months, they were back in Madrid – asking for the lawyer’s help. Figueroa soon found out that their plan wasn’t to remain in Spain, but to go back. The Syrian man said his mother-in-law, back in Damascus, was gravely ill. Figueroa begged him to stay in Madrid, a safe place where he could find a job and a comfortable life for his family. The Syrian man didn’t want to listen. Figueroa recalls him saying: ‘Game over. Game over.’

The lawyer got one last text from the family when they got to Morocco and hasn’t heard from them since. He’s convinced they went back to Damascus out of their disappointment with Europe. 

“I think he felt that if it didn’t work for them in Germany, it could never work for them in Spain that’s in a far worse situation economically. He had such great expectations of Germany, of Europe…. How can we let them down like this?” Figueroa asks. 

Despite the showcase of solidarity in both countries, it’s not clear how many refugees are willing to stay in Portugal or Spain, instead of trying to reach Germany, Sweden, or Norway. Recently, seven refugees languishing in Italy refused to board a plane after realizing it was headed to Spain. 

“Of course they don’t want to come to Portugal. Who would voluntarily want to come to Portugal?” says Costa Jorge of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Portugal. “But if the people are offered the right information about the solidarity and the resources they can find here, maybe they’ll think twice,” he says. 

After almost two years, G.T. says ending up in Portugal was her “destiny.” She works as an interpreter for other Syrian refugees, and her son goes to school in Lisbon. She says she doesn’t want to move again. On her Facebook page she posted a picture of herself – proudly standing with the president of Portugal.

“I can’t think about what I’ve lost, about my past,” she says. “I’m comfortable here. People's kindness and hospitality will always stay with me. And that lady at the airport was right. I have to think about my son. He’s safe here.”

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