The man behind the counter at the embassy told Hisham* he would have better a better chance of getting into Germany if he crossed the Mediterranean and snuck into Europe illegally.
“You look appropriate and you have all the papers required, you have nice degrees, and that’s why I owe you an explanation and tell you to not even apply,” Hisham remembers him saying.
“A lot of Syrians are now doing the same. They’re going to Germany […] get stuck there and become a burden on the community. I don’t know what your intentions are but I will be the first one to say ‘no’ to this application, even though it’s perfect.”
Hisham had spent at least two months gathering documents to obtain a temporary visiting visa to Germany. He had planned on going to Berlin to take German classes and to suss out whether he could enter a PhD program there and obtain a student visa. But just like that, his plans were shut down.
“Coming back home with a stack of papers that you put a lot of money and sweat into and thinking ‘Germany is over,’” Hisham trails off.
For many Syrians in Lebanon, rejection by the European Union is made all the worse by the increasingly untenable situation in their host country, and the impossibility of going home. More than 311,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in the EU, whereas European countries have pledged to take in only a little over 46,300. With doors closed in their faces at every turn, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are quickly running out of options.
Nowhere to go
A handsome 27-year-old with closely cropped curls, Hisham has been living in Lebanon since 2012, when he decided to finish his studies there after he began “losing hope” for Syria’s future. The Latakia native graduated a couple of months ago with a master’s degree in civil engineering. Now, he only has six months left on his student visa. If he does not find an employer willing to sponsor a work permit in Lebanon by then, his legal status will be put in jeopardy.
Lebanon now holds the uncontested status of the country with most refugees per capita. In July, UNHCR had some 1.17 million Syrian refugees registered. But this does not take into account tens of thousands of Syrians in Lebanon who are not registered.
In early 2015, Lebanon instituted new legislation relative to the status of Syrians in the country. For decades, the two countries have maintained a strong yet complicated relationship, thanks to linguistic and social ties fostered by open borders, not to mention the Syrian regime’s military presence in Lebanon until 2005. Many Syrians have lived, worked and started families in Lebanon for years, and provided a significant portion of the country’s manual labor. But with new laws in place, Syrians now need a visa to enter or work in Lebanon, unless the state believes they qualify for “exceptional humanitarian cases,” a frighteningly loose term given the widespread devastation caused by the civil war. This is the first time in the history of the two countries that such restrictions on movement have been applied.
“I’m trying to find a job here, but the conditions aren’t normal,” Hisham says. “You have to play with your CV, you have to hide your nationality but at the same time hint at it. If you say you’re Syrian, they’re going to discard your application unless the employer is looking for cheap labor.”
Like Hisham, Bassem* studied at a Lebanese university, although he initially moved to the country in 2010, before the war. A somewhat shy 25-year-old with rectangular glasses framing his face, Bassem currently works in a popular café in Beirut to make ends meet, although he hides it from the Lebanese General Security so as not to jeopardize his student residency.
“I can’t be honest about my work situation if I want to keep my visa,” he shrugs.
Bassem studied law, but doesn’t know whether he will ever be able to practice in Lebanon. For him to be recognized officially as a lawyer, he would need to become a member of a bar association in Syria and do an internship there. But going back is not an option for Bassem, who comes from the town of Al-Tall just north of Damascus.
“I can’t go back to Syria for many reasons, including because I could get drafted into the army — and no one really wants to join the army right now, not even regime supporters. That’s why I stopped going back home,” Bassem says.
“Even if the war ended next week, there would still be 10 years of chaos between the opposition and the regime supporters.”
Bassem also pictures himself continuing his studies in Germany.
“There are no opportunities for me here. I’ve been here for seven years and this country means a lot to me, but I can’t find a job easily,” he says. “I want to try Germany because the procedure to apply for asylum is simpler than a lot of other countries, and they’re more accepting. But if I don’t get a student visa, I will try to get in illegally.”
Bassem’s older brother, Youssef*, had been in Lebanon for three years before he left in February, smuggled into Greece by boat, then passing through Italy before finally reaching Sweden — a route taken by many others trying to flee the region.
“When my brother was in Lebanon, General Security kept his passport for eight months, then gave it back to him telling him he had four days to leave the country,” Bassem recalls. “So he left for Turkey, stayed there two months, then took a boat to Greece.”
Youssef has now been in Sweden for four months, where he lives with fellow refugees while awaiting an initial interview with Swedish services to determine whether he qualifies for asylum.
“Practically, what he’s doing now in Sweden is nothing. All he does is eat, sleep and drink. I feel that it’s an empty life,” Bassem says. “He’s a very active person. He’s not used to this void in his life, and now he’s sitting in a state of waiting.”
Smuggling into Europe has become a one of few options for Syrians here, as well as poor Lebanese and other vulnerable communities suffering from the breakdown of state and NGO-provided services, the severe political and economic crises in Lebanon and hostility of the authorities.
“Life for refugees in Lebanon is very hard, in part due to the cuts in food aid,” explains Dana Sleiman, UNHCR’s public information officer in Lebanon. The World Food Program, which has helped refugee families in Lebanon and other countries in the region since the beginning of the conflict, has been forced to cut its aid in half due to a funding crisis. Refugees in need now receive 13.5 dollars per month, down from 27 dollars earlier, which is half of the minimum needed for survival. When asked whether Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon can survive on current levels of humanitarian aid alone given the restrictions on labor, Dana Sleiman replies “absolutely not.”
“Talking about leaving for Europe is now more of a trend than it was a year ago, but it takes a lot of resources to be able to do the trip,” she adds. “Many families are considering leaving for Turkey and taking a boat to Greece from there, but it’s difficult to know for sure how many of them are doing it.”
Those who consider taking that step are all well aware of the dangers involved.
“You don’t want to stay here, you don’t find a job here. You feel that your days are done here,” Hisham says. “The only way I can continue my PhD is to go by boat illegally, and I don’t want to go through that. I don’t want to go to jail in Turkey if they catch me, I don’t want to be drowning on a ship. I’m not an action figure.”
“But I have thought about it a couple of times, during my depressive days. When you live in Lebanon you get those a lot.”
Who is a refugee?
While ‘refugee’ is a legal term for anyone escaping war or disaster, in the collective imagination of many, refugees are people that are poor — both figuratively and literally — and represent misery and disempowerment.
“The word ‘refugee’ is a hurtful term in a way,” Sleiman says. “There is a lot of frustration and humiliation associated with being a refugee, with having to wait in long lines for aid as it was the case until recently.”
“A lot of Syrians get used to the humiliation, to the fact that everything that happens in Lebanon is blamed on the Syrians. It gets to you, says Hisham.
In both Lebanon and Europe, Syrians have found themselves in a situation where they are seen and treated more like illegal migrants than individuals.
“I’m on the edge. I’m not considered a refugee, I’m considered an educated person, but at the same time I can’t do anything about it. You’re considered a Syrian just like the rest,” Hisham says. “I don’t want to be treated as a refugee […] I look at my passport and think it’s a burden.”
*Name has been changed.
The story was commissioned by Babelmed and was first published in French by them.