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No haven from hardship: Why some Syrians return from Europe

Why We Wrote This

Why would refugees who emptied their savings, took on debt, and risked their lives to reach Europe just a few years ago head back to a perilous Syria? Part 10 of On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration.

Dominique Soguel
A Syrian man who won't have a decision on his asylum claim before 2020 has decided to go back to Syria from Greece. Photo taken in Thessaloniki, Greece, on October 16, 2018.

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Outside the Syrian Embassy in Berlin in October, Maryam is reeling with rage because her husband has taken off with two of their four children to the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. She tears up recounting how her son and daughter, only 8 and 5 years old, crossed the borders of Greece, Turkey, and Syria on foot. Maryam’s husband is one of thousands of disappointed Syrian refugees who have left Europe. “The main reason people leave is that they don’t feel safe here,” Maryam says. “They feel uncertain about the future.” In interviews in Europe, Syrians stress their struggles to find work, housing, and a sense of community. For some young men, the disillusionment is so strong they are willing to take their chances in the Syrian military. “We are better off going back, biting the bullet of military service and then starting our lives,” says Omar, a squatter living in an abandoned building in Athens. “We might serve and not survive, but at least at the end of the road, if we do survive, we have a life in our country.”

Inside the Arrivals hall of Thessaloniki airport, a young man sits in the corner charging his phone, irritation flickering across his face.

It takes him hours to align battery power, internet connectivity, and the presence online of a smuggler.

While he waits, hundreds of people land in quick succession from German and other cities. For many Syrian refugees, these low-cost flights mark the end of their search for safety in Europe.

“I worry the smuggler will come online and I won’t catch him,” says Ahmad, a Syrian Kurd who just arrived from Bonn. He says he paid 1,500 euros to fly from Germany to Greece on fake Greek documents.

Ahmad, a pseudonym, fled to Istanbul in 2012 after a barrel bomb barely missed his house. In 2015, swept by the enthusiasm of Europe-bound cousins, he took the Balkan route to Germany. All he carried then, as now, was a backpack.

“Things didn’t work out for me,” he says, keeping an eye on airport police. “I was expected to work or study, but frankly I didn’t manage to do either.”

Since 2016, thousands of disappointed Syrian refugees have left Europe. No one has counted their exact numbers, but many of them are thought to have joined the 310,000 others who have returned home from Turkey and Lebanon this year to both government- and opposition-controlled areas.

Why would individuals who just a few years earlier were so keen on a new start in Europe, who shredded their savings, took on debt, and risked their lives on the Mediterranean and Balkan routes, now turn back? To find out, the Monitor spoke with Syrians in Berlin and Cottbus, Germany, and in Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece.

Time and time again, refugees cite delays in family reunification, limited job opportunities, feelings of isolation, and culture shock. Almost every one of the 100-plus Syrian refugees this reporter spoke to knew at least one friend or relative who had left Europe this year.

Left behind

Outside the Syrian Embassy in Berlin in October, Maryam is reeling with rage because her husband has taken off with two of their four children to the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. She tears up recounting how her son and daughter, only 8 and 5 years old, crossed the borders of Greece, Turkey, and Syria on foot.

“Men leave on their own or with their families because it takes years for papers to fall into place,” Maryam explains later while changing the diapers of her youngest. “The main reason people leave is that they don’t feel safe here. They feel uncertain about the future.”

Dominique Soguel
A Syrian mother and her child outside the Syrian Embassy in Berlin, Sept. 25, 2018.

The reasons for that are many. Most Syrians in Germany have received only one-year renewable temporary protection documents, rather than full refugee status that paves the way for permanent residency. Gains by the anti-immigrant party AfD and shifting government policies are another source of concern.

Syrians can also feel vulnerable within their homes, an unintended consequence of the way Western gender and parenting norms are presented in integration courses. Parents worry, for example, that authorities could take their children away if they use corporal punishment on them.

“The idea of losing your children, after everything else, is too much,” says Maryam.

The way back

The return route – based on interviews with Syrian refugees and smugglers – is well trodden. It often involves crossing the treacherous waters of the Evros, or Maritsa River, which forms a natural border between Turkey and Greece: wide and shallow in areas, narrow and choppy in others.

Every day, says a Greek bus driver in Thessaloniki, moments after a handful of Syrians had scrambled aboard, 12 to 15 refugees head in the direction of towns on the Turkish border.

The overall phenomenon is hard to measure. Germany does not track Syrians who go to Greece, which is within Europe's 26-nation Schengen free travel zone. Greek authorities primarily focus on refugees coming in to Europe. International aid workers say there is no clear picture or data on outgoing clandestine movements in the other direction.

But they are significant. “I crossed the river with nearly 200 people in January,” says Aboud, an illiterate 24-year-old who returned to Istanbul from Germany after struggling with language classes and everyday bureaucracy.

Refugees’ struggles

In interviews in Europe, Syrians from different regions, class backgrounds, and education levels stress their struggles to find work, housing and a sense of community. Some criticize outreach efforts focused on women and children, saying they upset traditional family dynamics and values.

In the northeastern German town of Cottbus, two Syrian fathers, Ali and Kamal, kill time at a drab mall. Both of them are natives of the northwestern Syrian town of Binnish. Ali says he has eight friends who have returned to the opposition-held enclave of Idlib. He often considers doing the same.

“Even if you are a prophet here and want to try to raise your child the right way, it is impossible,” Ali explains. “There are too many bad influences.”

Dominique Soguel
Cottbus, Germany, on September 26, 2018. Syrian refugees Ali and Kamal have found integrating and parenting in a new country a real challenge.

He casts a sharp glance at two German teenage girls who greet Syrian male friends with a hug. “You know how important the honor of our girls is to us,” he continues. “Here, by the age of 14, it is gone. I brought my children to save them from bombs, but I don't want them growing up here.”

That worldview is not representative of all Syrians. Kamel, a middle-aged man in the grip of nostalgia, says he wishes he could be “air-dropped” into Syria, but realizes that a brighter future for his children lies in Germany.

“I came here because I didn’t want my children enlisted to fight for anyone,” he says between cigarettes. “My son now speaks flawless German and he is an apprentice mechanic.”

By contrast, the two fathers barely speak 20 words of German between them after three years in the country.

Generational gap

The appetite for return is mixed among younger Syrians, reflecting different experiences of the conflict and the nature of their ties back home.

In a lively community center for refugees in Berlin, 20-year-old Anas says he would “go back tomorrow” if he could afford to. His mother and sister still live in Damascus, the Syrian capital. The fact that one of his friends returned the previous year without problems gives him hope. “Why should we deprive ourselves of our country just because he [President Bashar al-Assad] stays in power?”

Sitting next to him is Mohammed, who barely survived the siege of Eastern Ghouta and now uses an electric wheelchair. He cringes at such statements. For him, as for most Syrian refugees from hard-hit areas once held by the opposition, return is inconceivable while Mr. Assad is in charge.

“European governments want us to go back, and yes, some people do want to go back,” says Mohammed. “But I am staying put.”

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration still deem Syria unsafe. Both are uneasy at the way some politicians in countries with large Syrian refugee populations are increasingly raising the issue of return, and reconstruction in Syria.

Dominique Soguel
Mohammed (l.) and Anas, Berlin, September 24, 2018: Two Syrian young men who live in Berlin and have sharply contrasting views on the notion of return. One fled to avoid conscription in the army and misses his mother in Damascus. The other also misses his family but having barely survived the siege on Eastern Ghouta considers return absolutely impossible as long as President Bashar al-Assad is in power.

State-sponsored return

In Germany, the extent of Syrians’ interest in return is being tested through low-key official return programs, an option offered at the federal and regional level. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees reports that by August, 325 people had voluntarily traveled to Syria, excluding departures financed solely by regional authorities.

“Syrians were really happy when you handed them the tickets,” says Maik Schwiegershausen at the state office for refugee affairs in Berlin, which had offered a much warmer welcome than other parts of Germany and Europe. He notes that those returning are generally families rather than single men, who might risk forced military conscription or detention on arrival.

In a bid to push lucrative real estate projects, the Syrian government passed a decree in April that would allow it to expropriate property from owners who did not register the property in person within 30 days.

“The Syrians who are here want to return eventually,” Mr. Schwiegershausen says, and the decree prompted some to go back in order to safeguard their homes and land.

The notion of return tempts men like Atef, a former chauffeur from Damascus now living in Berlin, who battles depression and has almost no social contact outside his family. But he worries about how Syrian authorities would treat him.

 “If there was not this issue of fear, most Syrians would go back,” he says. “There is an element of fear because you don’t know how you will be received. The fact that you asked for asylum abroad could be held against you – you betrayed the nation.”

Those who act on the idea of return generally tell few people of their decision, keeping a low profile before and after the journey.

“For most people the decision to go back is a snap decision, a reaction to a particular experience, a problem with his wife, a negative encounter with neighbors or authorities,” says Khaled, a refrigerator repairman from Aleppo living in Berlin. “The decision is kept secret because it could create a problem for the person with authorities here and also there.”

“Everybody is stressed,” he adds, pointing to Germany’s new hard-line interior minister and noting that a ban on expulsions to Syria might expire at the end of this year.

In transit

The dynamics are different in Greece, where many Syrians are stuck because of tighter border controls. Here the government is sympathetic to refugees but strapped for cash. Few refugees interviewed in mainland Greece found culture shock a problem, but they are deeply uncertain about the future.

Greece is a transit country rather than a destination for migrants and the prospect of having to stay in the Mediterranean nation is a hard pill to swallow for traumatized Syrians. Those who accept the idea that reaching northern Europe will be financially or logistically impossible, either ask for asylum or return the way they came.

Before the war, Abdulrahman Abu Ayman made colorful sand bottles that he sold in Souq al-Qamaqiya in the Old City of Damascus. He was badly wounded when a tank shell collapsed his house in Ghouta, killing seven of his relatives.

He made 14 failed attempts to fly out of Athens to northern Europe with fraudulent documents. Deflated and defeated, he applied for asylum in Greece in April. He was shocked not to get an asylum hearing before mid-2020. That delay was the last straw, he said a few days before leaving for Turkey.

“Refugee status, recognition takes time,” says Luca Curci of UNHCR in Thessaloniki. “It is inevitable once you are uprooted: Uncertainty is the name of the game.”

Offer of amnesty

A Syrian government amnesty in October covering men who deserted the army or avoided military service has caught the attention of refugee draft dodgers.

Omar Omar, whose father runs a construction company near Damascus, hopes to benefit. When he was called to serve, his family spirited him out of the country. He crossed from Turkey to Greece on a rubber boat.

Dominique Soguel
Syrian young man who left his country to dodge military service but has had such a tough time in Greece - living for more than a year in a miserable island camp and now squatting in a building in Athens - that he has made plans to return to Syria. Photo taken on October 14, 2018 in Athens.

Now Omar is one of dozens of squatters living in an abandoned building in Athens. It’s a step up from the island camp where he spent more than a year in conditions so desperate he says he tried to commit suicide. He and two friends who reached Norway and Germany, along with another who stayed in Turkey, have made a pact to return to Syria this year.

“We’ve all been in Europe for years, unable to build a future,” he says. “We are better off going back, biting the bullet of military service and then starting our lives. We might serve and not survive, but at least at the end of the road, if we do survive, we have a life in our country.”

Bin Laden or Ali Baba

Back in Thessaloniki, two young men relax on a bench in what Syrians call “pigeon square.” They enjoy the Mediterranean breeze as they try to forget their sorrows, but technology keeps trauma within easy reach. 

Salih al Mashtoud opens his phone and scrolls through a series of grim photographs. The first batch captured the aftermath of an air strike that leveled his house. 

“You tell people a fraction of your story, and they don’t believe you,” says Mr. Mashtoud, pausing to look at a picture of his cousin’s mangled corpse. “If a Syrian has the good fortune to arrive in one piece in Europe, they don’t buy their story. Young men who left to avoid killing each other are treated like security threats.”

Both men report being at the receiving end of hostile remarks and actions. “The minute you have a beard, they call you Bin Laden or Ali Baba,” explains Bilal, a Palestinian Syrian. “If they don’t think we are terrorists, they take us for thieves.”

Mashtoud lives in a refugee camp and has an appointment with asylum authorities in 2020. He has no intention of waiting and “wasting another two years” of his life. He is preparing to head back to Syria.

Unlike Omar in Athens, Mashtoud has no confidence in government promises of amnesty. He knows a number of deserters who came forward and disappeared. But he wants to rejoin his mother who has been living on her own since 2016, when his father was detained.

“I am going to turn myself in to the regime,” he says. “If I make it, I make it. If I don’t, too bad. The dead are dead.”

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