DRESDEN, GERMANY —
"No country wants us legally," says Mohammad, 41, in a shopping plaza in the eastern German city of Dresden. "My family is in Syria and I wanted to bring them here, but it's been almost a year and I still have no information."
In the meantime, he adds, his four children, all under the age of 7, need a father to protect them if they are going survive a war zone. Like many parents in Germany, he says if he can't bring them here, he will have to go back.
Earlier this year, the German parliament passed laws that will mean asylum seekers like Mohammad — a victim of the Syrian war, but not "personally persecuted" — will have to wait two years to even apply to bring their families to Europe.
On the road to Germany in September, the former auto mechanic spent six hours in the sea when his first rubber boat collapsed. The next day, his new boat made it to Greece and he spent thousands of dollars getting to Germany. Like many travelers at the time, the goal was to get to a safe place, and then send for his more vulnerable family members; like the toddlers he didn't want to make the sometimes deadly journey.
While this plan appears to have failed, Mohammad says returning to Syria may not be a good answer, as borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — the three countries that are bearing the bulk of the Syrian refugee crisis — are virtually shuttered to new refugees.
The International Organization for Migration says roughly half of the 70,000 asylum seekers that it helped return to their home countries in 2015 came from Germany, with Iraqis making up one of the largest groups of both arrivals and departures. Refugees say these numbers are low, because many other people have left without applying for help.
Both refugees and the IOM agree, however, that neither returning families to war zones nor helping them run away will solve the European refugee crisis. The only way to stop refugees from fleeing, they say, is to stop the wars they flee.
"Even though return in many instances is currently the only viable option, it is no panacea," reads the IOM 2015 year-end overview report. "The effective management of international migration also depends upon making the option to remain in one's country a viable one."
Stuck in limbo
Waiting for a friend on a nearby picnic bench, Fakhry, 45, says he is planning to return to Turkey, where he and his family fled after his home in Syria's northern countryside was bombed.
"My whole family is in Turkey," he says, sighing. He has a wife and nine children between the ages of 4 and 22. "Maybe I will join them in a month."
Turkey, he says, is relatively safe, but without the legal right to work, he could barely feed his family when he lived there. Between missing his family, growing anti-immigrant sentiment and the long months or years it could take to return to his profession of driving a taxi, he feels his European dream is over.
And he is not alone among people who want to leave Europe and join their families in the countries they originally fled to, Fakhry says. Lebanon has stiffened its visa requirements, keeping Syrians with families there in Europe; but, droves of fathers who left their children in Turkey can still go back.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently proposed offering citizenship to Syrian refugees. And while it is not clear the move would help drivers like Fakhry, it is making some refugees wonder if they may have better luck the second time around in Turkey.
"Go to the airport," he adds. "You will see so many people going to Turkey."
At a camp in Berlin, other refugees say they know a few people who are leaving, but young men without children are rarely on that list. Many fled Syria to avoid conscription into the Syrian army or one of the country's many militant groups, including Islamic State militants.
"The Syrian military said I have to serve," says Anas, who ran a food company in Damascus. "I would be forced to kill my countrymen. Or they would be forced to kill me."
Other young men at the camp emphasize that they all want to go home, but to a home without war. In the meantime, they are doing their best to remain in Germany, as it sorts through the one million-plus asylum applications, some of which have already been denied.
Local people in Germany, including the civil servants charged with managing the refugee crisis, seem increasingly hostile as right-wing political parties grow in the wake of terror attacks, says Ahmed, 23, an aspiring mechanic from Syria.
The waning welcoming spirit, he adds, is a surprise to new arrivals, many of whom came in the sweep of refugees who poured into Europe in early fall after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany was ready to accept 800,000 new arrivals. Countries along the route to Germany briefly facilitated travel, rather than blocking the way as they do now.
"If you ask for help, they say, 'If you don't like it, go back,'" says Ahmed. "They seem to be inadvertently saying we are not welcome; but, wasn't it Merkel who told us to come?"