Crossing borders: Over land and sea from Syria to Germany

By Neil Sammonds, Syria Researcher, @neilsai

In the February/March edition of Voices in Crisis, Abu al-Abd, a Palestinian refugee and long-term resident of Syria, described the risks and difficulties of carrying out medical work in the besieged and embattled south Damascus neighbourhood of Yarmouk.

We pick up his story here, as he tells Amnesty International how he managed to flee to Germany. It includes bribery, dozens of checkpoints, collusion among warring groups, a total of nine countriesand crossing the Mediterranean in which some 8,000 people have drowned in the past two years.

“I had to leave Yarmouk because I was wanted by all sides, even though I only carried out medical activities in the camp [Yarmouk is often referred to as a refugee camp due to its large numbers of Palestinian refugees]. Like other medical activists I was wanted by the Syrian regime [whose forces have besieged and attacked Yarmouk since 2012] and they had already shot and injured me twice. I am wanted by some armed groups under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) [a coalition of opposition armed groups] because I stayed in Yarmouk after Jabhat al-Nusra [an armed group linked to al-Qaeda] and Daesh [another name for the armed group calling itself Islamic State] took control of most of it. And I am wanted by Islamist groups because of my leftist political beliefs and lack of commitment to religious matters.

One night in December 2015 I was told I must be ready to leave the next morning and to bring no documents (...) I had to prepare in total secrecy because if Jabhat al-Nusra heard that someone was leaving they would detain and torture them.
Abu al-Abd, a Palestinian refugee and long-term resident of Syria

“One night in December 2015 I was told I must be ready to leave the next morning and to bring no documents. An agreement had been made with a member of the government’s security forces to get me out and away from Yarmouk. Getting out this way costs about 300,000 Syrian Pounds [about US$1,400] per person. I had to prepare in total secrecy because if Jabhat al-Nusra heard that someone was leaving they would detain and torture them.

“The first checkpoint was controlled by the FSA. I succeeded [in crossing] by pretending to be Egyptian. At the next checkpoint, controlled by the Syrian government, a military man took me by the hand and off to a safe house outside Yarmouk. There I paid a further $1,000 to a high-ranking regime intelligence officer and was driven by another security force member to Hama [a city north of Damascus]. We passed through 30 security checkpoints. At each barrier the officer showed his identity card and we were allowed to continue. In Hama, I stayed with many others in a similar situation in a basement from morning until late afternoon. An officer of Air Force Intelligence arrived; we were split into groups of six and got into large cars with reflective glass and driven to an area outside the city. Our group was given the name of a high-ranking intelligence officer who would be responsible for making sure we did not get arrested. We waited there until it was dark.

“Then, a large armoured car with a big machine gun on it pulled up, as well as two cars from the security agencies. Women, children and about 20 men climbed into the armoured car through the back. Myself and five other men sat behind the driver’s seat. The driver’s colleague sat on ammunition boxes. Like this we travelled for an hour, crossing 19 checkpoints controlled by different government security forces.

“We were dropped at a large farm in a deserted area, where we waited for another hour. Cars came and went. Three Mitsubishi pick-up trucks arrived, driven by – we were surprised to see - members of Jabhat al-Nusra. They had Jabhat al-Nusra flags waving from them. Young people climbed onto the backs of the trucks and were hidden under covers. The rest of us climbed in behind the driver. We went through nine checkpoints, handing over money each time.

“We stopped for one day at a farm near Idleb [a town in northern Syria under the control of armed groups]. There we were divided again and driven for five hours in a van with tinted windows to a bus garage under the management of Jabhat al-Nusra. The buses could take people to Turkey. The women had to wear the veil, and each woman had to be accompanied by a close adult male relative. Some people had to pay a further 40,000 Syrian Pounds [US$180] for this trip. We travelled by bus towards a village close to the Turkish province of Hatay. Before we reached the village, there was a Jabhat al-Nusra checkpoint. Some of its members there were foreign and hardly spoke Arabic. Others spoke with youths trying to leave Syria, telling them about jihad and how it would be a mistake to leave. Indeed, some of the young people were persuaded and turned back.

“The last checkpoint before that village is held by Ahrar al-Sham [an opposition armed group]. But Ahrar al-Sham had just issued a decision not to play a role in smuggling and some bus drivers were arrested and a lot of people were pushed back. Our driver stopped before the checkpoint and contacted someone he knew from Ahrar al-Sham. A van belonging to Ahrar al-Sham approached and we were transferred into it, some distance away, out of sight. We were then able to pass through the Ahrar al-Sham checkpoint into the village, where we waited until sunset. We were taken to the top of a hill, where we found ourselves beside a paved road patrolled by Turkish border guards.

The border guards arrested us. First we were put in a big tent with nearly 300 men and women, and then we were held at an open-air basketball pitch. It was very cold.
Abu al-Abd

“The border guards arrested us. First we were put in a big tent with nearly 300 men and women, and then we were held at an open-air basketball pitch. It was very cold. At midnight they gave us pieces of paper in Turkish. They told us to sign our names on a piece of paper, with our dates of birth and hometowns, and said that by signing it we promised not to return to Turkey. They didn’t check what we wrote so we could write anything. After we signed the paper, we were taken back to the Syrian border. Women and children were taken in buses and the men walked, escorted by Turkish border guards, to the Syrian border 1km away.

Amnesty International has documented Turkey forcibly returning hundreds of people fleeing Syria back across the border as well as Turkish border guards killing and injuring people trying to cross from Syria.

“The same driver from Ahrar al-Sham was waiting for us on the Syrian side. He drove us back to the same smuggler and we waited for another night, then we walked once more towards Turkey on the same route. There were dozens of us. We walked for nearly an hour until we found ourselves across the Turkish border, where a large Ford Transport van was waiting for us. Each of us was forced to pay the smugglers 10,000 Syrian Pounds [US$45] to be taken to the bus station in the Turkish city of Antakya. The smugglers told us that if we did not pay we would be handed over to the Turkish security forces. Just before the bus garage in Antakya we were told to get out and buy bus tickets to Izmir at more than twice the correct price. Two men who refused to pay were beaten up by the smugglers.

“We took the bus to Izmir, and from there south to a small coastal town called Didim where smugglers were waiting. We had agreed previously with one to pay $700 per person to go by boat to Greece. The smugglers made the youths carry the boat, a motorized dinghy, and engine into the water. About 45 of us climbed onto it. Two smugglers boarded with us and quickly showed one of the passengers how to navigate. Then the smugglers jumped out and back onto land.

“We set off from the Turkish coast towards Greece. After more than an hour we neared an island. As we got close, the refugee who was guiding the boat suddenly took out a knife and stabbed a hole in the boat. I think the smugglers had told him to do this so that the boat could not be sent back towards Turkey. We all fell into the water, including a one-month-old baby, almost drowning. Thankfully we were helped by some travellers who had arrived before us. We were freezing cold from the water. A fire was lit and we discovered that we were on an island called Farmakonisi [an island about 15 km southwest of Didim] under the control of the Greek armed forces.

“We stayed there for five hours. Only the children among us were given a little water and some blankets. A boat came and took groups of us to another island called Leros, two hours away. Greek officials took our identity cards, our fingerprints and put us in a refugee camp where they provided us with a lot of relief items. We stayed on the pavement inside the camp due to the lack of places. We got identity papers and were booked onto a 10-hour boat trip to Athens, for which we paid €41 [$US46].

“From Athens we took a bus to the Macedonian border. A Macedonian military border guard told me to go back to Greece because I had “Palestinian” written on my identity paper, but we persuaded him that I was Syrian and he allowed me to enter. The Macedonian officials treated us harshly. Sometimes they even beat women, unlike the Greek military who were very kind towards us. We took the train to near the border with Serbia and then two buses and a train to Croatia. The Croatian police searched us and took our photographs and fingerprints. Then, we got on another train to Slovenia, where again police searched us and took photos and fingerprints. Next we headed to Austria by train and bus, then finally to the German border. The whole trip [from Yarmouk to Germany] took 11 days. 

“Germany is a beautiful country, and the people are good, but I really feel like a stranger here. This is despite the great treatment I get from my new friends. I am not allowed to work because I don’t have the required documents and paperwork, which adds to my loneliness. I feel a nostalgia for Syria, even though I am Palestinian by nationality.”

Amnesty International wants Europe’s leaders to open up safe and legal routes for refugees so they can reach the EU and seek asylum without having to attempt dangerous sea crossings in overcrowded boats or walk hundreds of miles carrying their children and belongings. And instead of handing over their savings to smugglers, they could spend their money on starting a new life in the EU.