WURZBURG, Germany — “It was pitch black. We were groping our way through the forest, hoping to hear water soon. I’d seen the maps and spoken to others who had done the journey before—I knew that once we reached the river, we would nearly be in Greece.”
This was no orienteering exercise. It was a long-awaited attempt to enter Europe.
In 2014, 23-year-old Yousef made the perilous overland journey from Turkey to Germany, fleeing Syria, where he had been imprisoned for organizing peaceful protests. Many people make this journey with the help of paid smugglers, but Yousef had spent the months beforehand poring over maps of Europe, filling his camera phone with screenshot aerial views of the terrain and learning village names by heart.
“I had no money. I couldn’t afford the smugglers’ fees, so I had to rely on myself for a lot of the journey,” he told The Daily Beast at his new home in central Germany. “I spoke to everyone I could to hear how they had done it, and studied really hard.”
At the Greek border, the waters of the Evros River that separates Greece from Turkey were flowing fast. “I’m a fairly good swimmer, but I still believed I’d be washed away. We waited until sunrise so we could see more clearly, and then I jumped in with a rope tied around me. I thought, ‘That’s it, Yousef, you’re going to drown here.’ But somehow I made it to the opposite bank and tied the rope to a tree so others could cross more easily.”
After less than half an hour, however, Yousef and his three other companions were caught by Greek police. Forced into a car, they were instantly returned to Turkey.
Today, over 3.8 million Syrians have fled the brutality of the Syrian war zone. Many have sought sanctuary in neighboring countries, but countless others are desperately attempting to reach European soil. With European Union states granting formal entry to only a handful of refugees (at 30,000, Germany has been by far the most “generous”) many have resorted to seeking asylum after illegal entry. Currently, the bulk of those attempting to reach Europe illegally are Syrians.
They travel however they can, either on overcrowded boats from North Africa teetering across the waves, or on foot across Southern and Central Europe—often with the help of paid (and often armed) smugglers who line the routes. But entry into Europe is notoriously difficult. Over the course of the last decade, the EU and its member states have channeled funds into securing their borders—training border patrols and investing in new surveillance and information exchange technology to shore up Europe’s frontiers. While border control measures are set in place by the EU to prevent “irregular” economic migration, in practice they are indiscriminate, also affecting those such as Yousef who come seeking asylum from war and persecution.
“I tried to enter Greece four times. Each attempt was by night, but the Greek police kept catching me,” says Ramo, a Syrian-Kurdish actor who fled Syria in 2012 following threats against him by the regime. “I thought that they must be using infra-red, so I decided to wade neck-deep in icy water so that they couldn’t see me. I nearly got hypothermia—and when I eventually scrambled out, there was a police car there to meet me.”
For many like Ramo, it is a perilous journey conducted in the dark—a desperate bid to sneak unseen past checkpoints, surveillance towers, police controls and coast guards. Those who have traveled overland through “fringe” countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia have reported violent deportations at borders, cramped conditions in detention centres, ill treatment by smugglers, and relentless weeks traveling on foot, deprived of food, searching for rivers in order to quench their thirst, and snatching sleep whenever and wherever possible.
“In prison in Syria, I was beaten with rifle butts and kicked in the face. My nose and shoulder were broken, I was deprived of light, and when I was released my own mother didn’t recognise me when I stumbled through the door,” says Yousef. “Back then, memories of prison were what broke my sleep… But my journey across Europe is the source of my nightmares now. I wake up in sweats, dreaming I have to start the journey all over again.”
Today, Yousef’s older brother is preparing to follow in his footsteps. “I’ve been helping him through WhatsApp—he needs as much advice as possible. I’m passing on all the phone numbers I collected, tips on where to find water—those kinds of things.”
Around this “Fortress Europe,” the Mediterranean serves as a moat. Today, it has become a watery grave, sown with thousands of bodies of those who sought to cross it. With the Italian proactive search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, discontinued in November last year, and with only limited EU funding provided since then for similar operations, an already dangerous journey has now become lethal. This year alone, 1,500 men, women and children have died while trying to cross the stretch between North Africa and Europe’s underbelly, and April 19 saw the worst disaster in its waters since the Second World War, with over 700, and possibly as many as 900, drowning off the coast of Libya.
“700 dead?” asks Khaled, a Syrian from Deraa who made a terrifying crossing from the Libyan city of Zuwara at the end of last October. “I cannot begin to get my head around this. They died because they wanted to live in a country free from war and instability. The world’s heart should be breaking.”
“I can’t believe how lucky I am,” he continues as he recounts his own experiences of crossing the Mediterranean. “It’s a terrifying journey—you’re so vulnerable. I paid smugglers to get me to Europe, and I had to do exactly what they said. In the middle of the night, men with Kalashnikovs drove us to the beach, and yelled at us to run into the water to wait for the boat. Obviously, we did as we were told.”
At sea, crammed into an old rusty fishing vessel, Khaled thought his time had come. “The engine broke. Everyone was praying and vomiting over the sides. I was convinced the thing would fall to pieces with every wave that hit.” Hours later, the Italian coast guard arrived—one of the last missions before the discontinuation of Mare Nostrum—and transported Khaled and his fellow passengers to safety in Catania, Sicily.
But many are not so lucky.
While EU politicians have argued that search and rescue operations create a “pull factor” encouraging more migrants to make the journey, or that tackling the network of traffickers should be where Europe invests its energies, the painful fact is that as long as war, persecution, and political instability continue to force people from their homes, the desperation of their search for a better life will always override immediate safety concerns.
“I knew the journey would be dangerous,” explains Khaled. “I only took the boat because it was my last option. It was terrifying—but I couldn’t carry on living in the war zone, and I couldn’t just spend the foreseeable future in a refugee camp. I wanted a life and a future. If there were peace in Syria, I would never have had to do this. I love my homeland, but the situation there left me no choice.”
“People are misunderstanding what’s going on,” adds Yousef. “Traffickers are a problem, of course, because they are overlooking refugees’ safety in the interest of money. But there wouldn’t be any business for them if the war stopped.”
In spite of the litany about lives lost on these journeys, there are still countless Syrians—and other migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East—who will not stop trying to reach European soil. They are driven by the will to start life anew, and by the memories of what they have fled. “If I had stayed in Syria, I would be dead by now,” says Ramo. “But this knowledge drove me forwards. Yes, the journey was exhausting and frightening at times, but with each step I took, death fell away and I walked towards life.”