Syrians choose death-trap boats over a living hell

Syrians choose death-trap boats over a living hell
5 min read
11 March, 2015
Feature: Syrian refugees face hardships to get to Tunisia, and an even more dangerous trip to get to Europe, where the welcome they receive is far from what they hope for.
Syrian refugees rescued from the sea land at Sicily [Antonio Melita/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty]
"We can't take it here any longer. There's no work, housing or help. The only choice is to ride the waves to Europe," Abu Yassir told al-Araby al-Jadeed as he explained why thousands of Syrians that have fled to Tunisia have been forced to try and cross the treacherous Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life.

Abu Yassir, like the thousands of Syrians that have snuck into Tunisia across the Algerian border without getting their passports stamped, is thinking about leaving for Italy where he has family members. They were first smuggled to the Libyan city of Zuwarah and then to Italy.

Said Abu Yassir: "An end to the war and the dream of going home to Damascus is out of reach, so the death boats are a better option than the terrible lives we face in the countries we have sought refuge in."

So the journey begins

The death boats are a better option than the terrible lives we face.

- Abu Yassir, Syrian refugee

Abu Yassir and the vast majority of Syrian refugees who entered across the Algerian border did so because they see Tunisia as a transit point on the way to Europe. The refugees are smuggled in stages, starting from Tunisia where they are transported to Libya then finally to Italy, or they choose to go directly to Italy from the Tunisian coastal provinces closest to Europe.

In Kasserine province, 380 kilometers from Tunis, al-Araby al-Jadeed's journey began to find out how Syrians enter Tunisia and then how they are smuggled to Europe. The process is simple but dangerous. Refugees are smuggled into the country in cars, and the cost of the journey is around $150.

The Tunisian government's tight border security meant I had to meet with a middle man whose job is to coordinate the smuggling of Syrians into Tunisia then to coastal Tunisian provinces or nearby Libya to go their final destination.

I did not reveal my identity to the middle man who claimed he had stopped trafficking people because the security measures along the border had gotten tighter. But when we told him we had a Syrian family looking for a smuggler and willing to pay $100, he laughed sarcastically and said his Syrian customers pay $150 just to enter Tunisian territory before they settle there and think about leaving for Europe. "For that you have pay up to $1,500."

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] has documented many violations against Syrians during their journey from Tunisia to Libya. Al-Araby recorded an incident in Kasserine in which a female refugee was raped by smugglers but the police sided with the two rapists. I tried to contact the police but they refused to comment on the incident and said "It would infringe on the personal information of the people involved."

Head of the Tunisian Red Crescent, Hafed bin Milad, said, his organisation had recorded many cases of Syrians "being exploited by groups or individuals and they have reached the extent of forced prostitution and begging and the rape of children. Not to mention the harsh conditions refugees face such as the lack of work and housing."

Milad told al-Araby: "The Syrians are scared of the police because they do not have entry visas and this stops them from reporting these crimes."

He added "Syrian refugees think Europe respects their rights, unlike Arab countries, and that refugees live off charity, when most of time they resort to begging and are exploited."

Death-trap boats

Abu Khalid paid $1,200 for a place on a boat to Europe. The human trafficking goes on in spite of the ongoing intense fighting in Libya, especially along the Tunisian-Libyan border. Said Abu Khalid: "Other Syrians prefer to emigrate from parts of Tunisia close to Europe such as al-Haouaria in Nabeul province, Kerkennah in Sfax province and Djerba Island, which how young Tunisians leave for Europe."

SR is a Syrian trying to emigrate. He said the Tunisian coastal provinces were now the shortest way to Europe, in particular Italy, where refugees can seek asylum. SR added the cost of the journey depended on the boats' capacity and the number of refugees on the journey.

According to the Tunisian Red Crescent, 3,500 people drowned in the Mediterranean last year alone most of whom were Syrian. The groups' records show the number of illegal Syrian immigrants has doubled in comparison to 2011, and yet only 600 Syrians refugees are registered legally with the state.

Immigration policy

3,500 people drowned in the Mediterranean last year alone. Most of them were Syrian.

Head of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Abd al-Rahman al-Hudhaili, said the lack of accurate statistics on Syrian refugees was because of the restrictive immigration policies and because Syrians in the country do not live in legally registered groups, which make it hard for humanitarian organisations to get in contact with them.

Hudhaili added that the tough conditions Syrians faced because of high unemployment and immigration to Tunisia by Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans to be unskilled labourers have forced Syrians to emigrate to Europe, because they do not have any opportunities in Tunisia.

UNHCR researcher Hafed bin Milad said immigration policies in Arab countries still do not respect human rights because their economic problems do not allow for even the lowest living standards.

Milad is worried Syrian fatalities will increase, especially with the European discourse on immigration policy and anti-terrorism laws. He told al-Araby "We must combat the roots of the issues that drive thousands of people to think of emigrating illegally."

He added: "Arriving in Europe is not the end of the ordeal for immigrants as they believe, because European countries have made their immigration laws stricter to address widespread illegal immigration."

Head of the Red Crescent in Medenine province, Mongi Slim, said: "We are still in contact with some Syrian refugees in Germany who were in Tunisia. They are in contact with their relatives in Tunisia and want them to join them."

He added that Tunisia did not have asylum laws like European countries, where the UNHCR studies refugees' cases and issues them asylum documents, which makes the lives of Syrians in Tunisia very difficult and forces them to immigrate.

Slim said he had drafted two bills on asylum and a bill on human trafficking in Tunisia after the revolution in 2011 during the time of the Troika government, but the bills are still waiting to be ratified until now.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.