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Back Door To Europe, Syrian Refugees Reroute Via Brazil

Following the plan by the EU and Turkey to turn back refugees, many are looking for alternative ways to reach Europe. A new path to the continent starts on the other side of the Atlantic — in South America — and continues through far-flung French terr

Tiete bus terminal, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Tiete bus terminal, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Mohamad Khair Alhamwi

CAYENNE — As Greece begins shipping migrants back to Turkey, Syrians are finding new alternatives to the increasingly difficult journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. One of these routes takes refugees to Brazil and into French Guiana, a French territory on the northeastern coast of South America, where refugees can more easily establish legal residency in a French territory while applying for asylum in Europe.

"I learned from friends who were living in Europe that many Africans travel to Europe this way," said Mohammed, a 27-year-old from Homs who had fled to Lebanon in 2012 as the war in Syria became increasingly violent. "One month after applying, I received my visa, and they gave me 90 days to enter Brazil."

Several months after arriving in Beirut, he walked into the Brazilian embassy and applied for a tourist visa. "I had never imagined the journey would be so easy," he said.

Brazil is one of the very few countries that does not impose a strict visa regime on Syrians. They can still obtain tourism, work and student visas with relative ease.

After receiving his visa, Mohammed flew to São Paulo, and from there, used buses and a domestic flight to reach French Guiana. He said the relative ease of the journey meant hiring a smuggler was unnecessary.

"Most people cross into French Guiana at a bridge over the Oyapok River, but for illegal crossings, there are daily boats that transport workers and farmers," he said. "I wasn't asked for any documents to get into these boats, and the only cost was the boat fare."

After crossing the border, Mohammed hitched into town and turned himself in at the police station, just as refugees do in Europe. "I waited at the police station for a few hours, and in the morning, I was transported with another 20 migrants to the capital, Cayenne," he said.

Word is spreading

According to Mohammed, more and more Syrians have been making the same journey. In his group alone, he said, there were three other Syrians and two Iraqis.

In the capital, French authorities registered the refugees and told them they would need to wait for about a month for their papers to be processed.

"The French authorities provided accommodation for families, but those of us who were single had to take care of ourselves," said Mohammed. "There were many people like us waiting for their papers. Most of them spent their nights on the beach because they didn't have the money to rent a room."

Mohammed, who was similarly low on cash, had made fast friends with the Syrian and Iraqi men he met on the way to the capital. They were quick to offer him a spot in their rented apartment.

Two months later, and after three visits to French immigration and integration offices, Mohammed received a one-year, temporary residency. This provided him with legal status in French Guiana while he waited for his case to be processed.

"I was allowed to work, so I found a job in a fast food restaurant, but I wasn't allowed to travel to France or to any other European country because I didn't have the travel document that most other refugees receive."

After seven months of waiting, Mohammed finally obtained humanitarian asylum in France, and will soon be moving to the "European part of France," as he calls it.

"Now I know that the territories of France are located in many other places besides Europe. I am legally allowed to go to France, but I have to pay for the trip from my own pocket, which I am currently saving for," he said.

He receives a monthly stipend of 300 euros per month from the French government, in addition to housing and a travel document.

Although it's far longer in time and distance, Mohammed said his alternative route to Europe was much safer than the short boat trip across the Mediterranean. In 2015 alone, more than 2,500 people drowned or went missing on their journey, according to the UN's Refugee Agency.

The cost of a flight to Brazil is nearly the same price as the illegal journey across the Mediterranean. The trip cost him about $3,000, including airfare and travel costs from Brazil to French Guiana.

Mohammed has urged his younger brother, 23, to make the same journey. "I told him to do it as soon as possible. This journey won't be that easy forever," he said. "Soon enough, the numbers taking this journey will increase, and consequently, just as it happened in Europe, the rules will tighten."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Western Tanks To Ukraine Trigger Russian Threats — But Also Fears Of Major Counterattack

Germany and the U.S. overcame months of reluctance in the past 24 hours to commit to sending heavy combat tanks to Ukraine. Russia responded with official bluster, but others in Moscow fear that the tanks delivery could be a gamechanger on the battlefield.

Picture of recently mobilized Russian troops

Recently mobilized Russian troops getting ready to depart for service

Cameron Manley

A week of growing expectations of a coming Russian offensive was turned on its head Wednesday as Germany and the U.S. announced their intention to send heavy combat tanks to Ukraine.

The sudden show of resolve on supplying tanks — after months of reluctance, particularly from Germany — has prompted some Russians to fear that Ukraine will now be equipped for a major counterattack. That would be significant reversal after speculation had been growing this month about a Russian spring offensive.

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Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government confirmed Wednesday morning that Berlin plans to send at least 14 German-built Leopard 2 tanks to the frontline. U.S. media also reported that Joe Biden’s administration is expected to officially announce Washington's commitment, with at least 30 M1 Abrams tanks expected to be sent.

The timeline remains unclear as to when the vehicles would make it into combat. Still, both sides on the war acknowledged that it is a significant development with the potential to change the math on the battlefield.

Official Russian response was loaded with typical incendiary rhetoric. Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to Russian president Vladimir Putin, said the new tanks would "burn like all the rest, only these ones are expensive.”

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