When asked what drives them and hundreds of thousands of others like them to join the perilous exodus to Europe, Liwa’a, Maher, Ali and almost every other Syrian refugee I spoke to this week repeated a version of the same thing: “I would rather die in the sea trying than die in Turkey, starving and without a chance.”
Now in limbo in Istanbul, the young men have their sights set on asylum in Germany or another Western European country. “It’s not the first time we risked our lives,” says Ali, a 26-year-old from Aleppo who escaped with his mother and three sisters after their home was bombed and all of their family members were injured. “Just leaving Syria to Turkey cost us $1,500 per person, paid to smugglers,” Ali explains. “We already encountered gunfire … when we crossed that border. Making the journey to Europe, where human rights are respected, feels a much easier journey to take than the one we already had.”
It is not difficult to find smugglers and determine prices and routes to make the trip out of Turkey to Norway, Germany, and other countries. Every single refugee I interviewed recited the same point of view: “Sea crossing is most dangerous but easier. Land crossing is safe but much harder,” Ali says.
The price to travel by boat from Turkey to Greece is about 900 euros per person, whereas the road journey costs about 3,000 euros per person. Liwa’a, the only member of his family left behind in Turkey, is currently waiting for his brothers to withdraw him through a family unity program provided by Germany. He confirms that the smugglers are known to all. “The two big smugglers are two Turkish guys. They control critical points in the sea crossing that make it possible for refugees to make it. But 95 percent of those who work with them are Syrians. We deal with the Syrians only,” Liwa’a explains.
When asked where refugees manage to find the money, Liwa’a says the best strategy is for a male head of household to make the arduous trip, paying for only one person to be smuggled. Once he arrives at his European destination, he applies for the rest of his family to join him. The cost of this is paid by the host government. If families choose to make the journey together, only the adults are charged. Liwa’a says about 70 percent of refugees borrow the money, while others use all of their savings to embark on the journey.
For many, the prize of asylum is worth the ruinous expense and risk. “We are used to hearing news of 20 to 30 people dying per day,” says Ali. “We hear of horrible stories of how people get treated in countries like Hungary. The world is only horrified now after they saw the child,” (Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Kurdish refugee whose dead body washed ashore on a Turkish beach). “We have gotten used to this heavy price. But what can we do? We have no choice but to search for a better life,” Ali explains. “We have no rights here in Turkey, there are no jobs, and our home is destroyed in Syria. What choice do we have? At least in Germany they treat us like human beings.”
Liwa’a lists the desired countries in order of preference. “First it’s Germany, followed by Austria, Holland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.” These countries “provide you with a monthly salary, pay for your accommodation and education, and they protect your human rights. Even if you don’t find work there for a few years, you are still secured financially and are treated with respect.” Aside from safety and dignity, Ali and Liwa’a both acknowledge the financial incentives that draw refugees to Western Europe. “What choice do we have?” Ali asks. “We are making our children work at the age of 8 because we cannot afford to feed them. This is not right. That is why we want to go to Germany, so that we can have a better, stable and secure life.”
But after the news last week, Ali changed his mind about how to get there. “I can no longer risk my sisters’ and my mother’s lives after the news these last few days. I hear horrible things, of how Greek, Hungarian and Italian police are treating my friends who tried to make the trip. So I changed my mind. I will only try through the formal route. Maybe I can get an asylum or maybe a way to finish my education, but this is too much responsibility — to risk my family’s life.” Liwa’a, on the other hand, is ready to face the risk, but while waiting to leave he still hopes he can get a plane ticket to join his family formally, assisted by the countries that are hosting them. Currently, he has one brother in Germany and two sisters in Norway.
The young men, both in their 20s, express great cynicism about the corruption among not only the smugglers but also the border controls and police of all the countries refugees pass through, and about the unfairness and cruelty of the situation. “At the end,” says Liwa’a, “its all about money. If you have $10,000 you can make the trip by plane with fake papers. If you have money, you can do everything. And if you have safety at home, you will never want to leave. We have no choice but to risk our lives in search for a better one.”
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.