Kopingebro, Sweden - Ali Jamal travelled thousands of kilometres on foot, by train and road to flee violence in Syria while Jomaah piled his family into a camper van to smuggle them north to Europe.
They have now reached safety in Sweden, some of the growing thousands of Syrians who are evading the EU’s frontier controls to escape the turmoil of the past 17 months.
The refugee crisis has seen more than 230 000 Syrians flee to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. From there, a determined, and usually richer, few press on to the EU borders.
Weeks of heavy fighting in Aleppo and increased use of airpower by government forces led to the departure of 103 416 people last month. Activists from the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria counted 4 933 civilian victims last month, making it the highest monthly death toll in the country’s 17 month-long civil war.
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said this week that 235 000 people had sought asylum so far in neighbouring countries.
Sweden alone, 2 500km from Turkey’s European frontier, is expecting 17 000 Syrians to show up this year and next.
“I crossed a river and someone said, ‘You’re in Europe. No one can stop you now’,” said Jamal, a student from Idlib, recalling the relative ease of reaching a refugee centre in Kopingebro, southern Sweden.
Fearing a call-up to President Bashar al-Assad’s army, by which his brother had been killed trying to desert, the 24-year-old said he felt he had to flee. He spent two days zig-zagging through the mountains of Syria, dodging bombs and roadblocks to reach Turkey.
With about 75 000 Syrians already registered there, and the UN forecasting up to 200 000 could eventually cram in to camps in Turkey, those who can afford it are casting their hopes further afield.
Jamal, speaking at the asylum reception hostel in Kopingebro, near Ystad, said he spent 25 days in Turkey before embarking on a shadowy journey overland northward.
Like Jomaah, who spent thousands of dollars hiring a minivan and driver in Turkey to take his family on a clandestine odyssey across Europe, Jamal offered few details of a trip outside the law; but Syrians see it as their only option to escape danger when formal, visa-limited travel is all but impossible.
When Jamal’s brother was among a group of Syrian soldiers shot in March, his mind was made up: “I am wanted in Syria,” he said. “I don’t want to fight and kill people. I want to study.”
The secrecy of illegal crossings and the patchiness of statistics combining data from the 27 EU member states means the full picture of Syrian migration into the bloc is unclear.
But Germany saw almost as many apply for asylum in the first seven months of this year – 2 246 – as in all of 2011, while Britain and several other countries also report rising figures, according to data from the EU statistics agency, Eurostat.
Eurostat said 12 325 Syrians had lodged asylum appeals across the EU from January to June. The move to flight has placed strains on all concerned.
Sweden has had to improvise accommodation. In the case of Jamal and Jomaah that is a hostel normally used by tourists. Many have moved into red cottages on an island campsite, which opened last week.
Syrians became the third largest group of asylum seekers in Sweden after Somalis and Afghans. The country has approved nearly all Syrian asylum applications so far this year.
Jomaah, who did not want to give his family name for fear of reprisals against his relatives at home, fled with his wife and children after he was beaten by Assad’s forces.
His father drove them to the mountains, whence they went on foot into Turkey. He paid $8 000 to hire a camper wagon and driver to take them into Europe, living concealed in the back of the van.
“They don’t stop these camper vans,” said Jomaah of the tactic his guide used to evade the police checks which would have thwarted his bid to reach Sweden. “They think, ‘tourists’,” he said. “We were in the back and couldn’t see anything. It took a long time to get through Germany.”
Many of those with the means to make it to Sweden have left comfortable lives, are educated and had good jobs.
Jomaah, a ship’s engineer, spoke of a sprawling family villa surrounded by a garden with olive and lemon trees, a car, his dog and even a boat.
Now, they cram into a room fitted with bunk beds and eat meatballs with macaroni. And not everyone makes it. Several Syrians drowned last month when the boat bringing them from Turkey sank off Cyprus.
Noting that Sweden expects 17 000 Syrians to arrive, making them the biggest national group of asylum-seekers next year, Mikael Ribbenvik, a director at the Swedish Migration Board, said: “Resources are stretched. That is a big number for a small country.”
Philippe Fargues, director of the Migration Policy Centre think tank at Florence, said Europe should do more to open its borders by saying that anyone coming from Syria could be counted as a refugee, rather than formally have to prove refugee status.
He argued that European bodies and EU states also had to do more to co-ordinate their policies so that Syrians would find it easier to seek asylum – as well as to help those countries dealing with the greatest refugee numbers.
For now, the reality for those Syrians fortunate to make it out and get as far as Stockholm is lining up at a government office in the suburbs of the Swedish capital to go through hours of bureaucracy to file a claim for asylum.
“Everyone who comes here is losing something,” said Antony Sawires, who reached Sweden with his family a month ago after leaving a house in Damascus and a job in the communications industry. “But we win the safety.”
Though counting himself lucky after seeing two cars blow up before he left his home, he was still adjusting to life as a refugee: “I will never have the same lifestyle here,” he said.
But his wife was quick to reassure him: “Home,” she said, “is where you feel safe.” – Reuters