News / Middle East

Syrian Refugees Despair as Europe Closes Door

Border fence separating Morocco and Spain's north African enclave Melilla runs all the way to the sea, Dec. 3, 2013.
Border fence separating Morocco and Spain's north African enclave Melilla runs all the way to the sea, Dec. 3, 2013.
Reuters
Yahya Khedr has traveled for more than two years, through five countries and with six forged passports to get his family from the war-ravaged Syrian city of Homs to Europe.
 
But now that his wife and five children have reached Melilla, a small Spanish enclave on Morocco's Mediterranean coast, their chance of a European life seems as remote as ever.
 
Border fence separating Morocco and Spain's north African enclave Melilla is seen along a road in the 12.5-square-kilometer territory, Dec. 4, 2013.Border fence separating Morocco and Spain's north African enclave Melilla is seen along a road in the 12.5-square-kilometer territory, Dec. 4, 2013.
x
Border fence separating Morocco and Spain's north African enclave Melilla is seen along a road in the 12.5-square-kilometer territory, Dec. 4, 2013.
Border fence separating Morocco and Spain's north African enclave Melilla is seen along a road in the 12.5-square-kilometer territory, Dec. 4, 2013.
“People make it to Melilla hoping to find Europe,” said Khedr, who before his country's war owned a successful European truck-parts import business. “But here, it's an open-air jail.”
 
Armed guards and razor wire lining the 12-km (7.5-mile) frontier around the town have long discouraged Africans fleeing poverty and conflict from seeing Melilla as a gateway to Europe, 180 km (110 miles) away across open water.
 
But desperation has driven hundreds of Syrians like Khedr to brave long journeys — and Moroccan crime gangs that prey on migrants — to fetch up at the gates, turning the port town of 80,000 into a new pressure point for waves of destitute people struggling to reach the safety and prosperity of Europe.
 
As the United Nations marked International Migrants Day on Wednesday, drawing attention to governments' obligations toward people on the move, European Union leaders were preparing for a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday that is likely to approve tougher ways to keep immigrants out.
 
That will disappoint Spain, Italy and Greece, whose hope of persuading northern neighbors to share the burden of taking in those fleeing across the Mediterranean have been undermined by hostility among voters feeling the pinch of austerity policies.
 
Before an EU summit in October more than 360 people drowned within sight of Lampedusa, an Italian island off Tunisia that has long been a magnet for migrants. But talks on a more coordinated, EU-wide solution have made little progress.
 
“There is no master plan," said Ana Terron, an adviser to the EU home affairs commissioner and a former Spanish immigration minister. "It is an international problem that should be dealt with at a European level but there is a lack of will.”
 
Spain says that in the first half of this year it took in some 3,000 illegal migrants, twice the number in the first half of 2012. Most came via Melilla and its other main African enclave, Ceuta, where detention centers send asylum-seekers over to the Spanish mainland once they become too overcrowded.
 
About 2,300 have made it into Melilla so far this year.
 
The EU found over 72,000 people entering the bloc illegally last year, including a fivefold rise in Syrians, to 8,000.
 
Southern exposure
 
People fleeing conflict in the Middle East have long taken northern routes through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans in the hope of making it to richer states like Germany, Sweden or Britain. But tighter policing, especially around Greece and Italy, has driven more to head along more southerly routes.
 
This month, 74 Syrians were detained in Lisbon after flying in on fake passports from Guinea-Bissau, Morocco, and elsewhere.
 
Others push along the North African coast, through Libya and Algeria to Morocco and, they hope, into Melilla and Ceuta.
 
“Immigration is like water. It always seeks a way to flow,” says Jose Palazon, a Melilla teacher who heads Prodein, an organization that helps immigrants, especially the children who hide around the town's docks in the hope of sneaking aboard ferries and other ships heading for mainland Spain.
 
“If you close all waterways, the level goes up, like on a dam. Until it spills over,” Palazon said, likening that to the way migrants who camp out in the woods and hills around Melilla periodically try to rush the security fence to get inside.
 
While the likes of Yahya Khedr managed to sneak his family into the town, and so to its hostel for refugees, by using fake passports, hundreds of less well-off people, mostly Africans from south of the Sahara, camp outside, looking for a chance.
 
“In our countries, we live with less than one dollar a day,” said Serge, 30, from Cameroon, who has been surviving on the hillside outside Melilla for months. “Africa needs to be fixed if the immigration is to slow down. If nothing is done, it will only increase.”
 
Spain, where more than one worker in four is out of a job, has responded by reinforcing Melilla's six-meter (20-foot) border fence with razor wire. That drew criticism from human rights groups when migrants trying to climb over it were left slashed and hanging on the barrier.
 
The Spanish government representative in Melilla, Abdelmalik El Barkani, defended the measures as necessary and noted that few refugees wanted to register for asylum in the enclave, preferring to count on a transfer to mainland Europe.
 
Madrid has also stepped up cooperation with Moroccan police in the hope they can prevent people approaching the border.
 
Forged passports, fake tears
 
Yahya Khedr is despairing of ever getting there, however.
 
Three years ago, Khedr, now 43, was living well from his business importing European truck parts to Syria. He would spend several months a year in Murcia, in southern Spain, where he also owned a bar and ran his trading business.
 
He traveled elsewhere in Europe, too, taking his family to Disneyland in Paris or visiting a daughter who lives in Italy.
 
Now, much of his home city of Homs is rubble. Some of the first bombing of the civil war in 2011 destroyed his house and Khedr joined a Syrian refugee exodus now 2.3 million strong.
 
Holding a Spanish residence permit for himself only, he and the family flew and drove via Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and Algeria to Morocco. There he bought forged Moroccan passports for his wife and children to get them into Melilla in mid-October under Spanish rules that allow entry to Moroccans living nearby.
 
Typically, Syrian refugees say, Moroccan gangs charge $1,500 or more for a passport. Khedr did not say what he paid.
 
His family now lives with about 900 other migrants in the low-rise compound that forms Melilla's immigration holding center — designed to house little more than half that number.
 
He himself saves money by living for $12 a day in a hotel in the nearby Moroccan town of Nador. Using his Spanish permit, he is able to travel every week to visit his family in Melilla.
 
With no sign of being allowed to cross over to the Spanish mainland, however, Khedr now wonders whether he might even start heading back home.

“It's a catastrophe,” he said. “The Europeans say they're weeping for Syria but it's all fake.”

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs