Migrant Lives

Refugees: Escaping Syria Is More Dangerous Than Entering Europe

The dangerous sea and land crossings that Syrian refugees are making to Europe have been well-documented. Less well known are the equally perilous journeys people take to leave Syria itself.

In Oncupinar, Syria, trying to enter Turkey.
In Oncupinar, Syria, trying to enter Turkey.
Firas Alwani

Amal, a 28-year-old Syrian-Palestinian refugee, who managed to make it safely to Germany with her family, says making it from Damascus to the border with Turkey, "was the hardest of all" the chapters of her migrant journey to Europe.

Syria remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Nearly half of the population has been internally displaced or has fled to other countries, and the war has claimed the lives of close to half a million people. Over the past five years, Syrians have devised countless ways to escape the killing and violence.

While residents of towns and cities in northern Syria have relatively easy access to Turkey, the journey for those who live in the country's center or south is much more dangerous. Syrians traveling out of Damascus must cross dozens of active battle lines and navigate hundreds of government and armed opposition checkpoints before they reach the Turkish border.

The danger and difficulty of the journey has increased dramatically since the autumn of 2015, when Turkish authorities sealed the border with Syria.

And while most international media outlets focus intensely on refugees travelling by sea from Turkey into Europe, they have overlooked the similarly dangerous, and illegal journey from Syria into Turkey and other neighboring countries, a trip that often results in detention and, sometimes, death.

Others make the trip because they are wanted by the Syrian government, either because of an arrest warrant issued by one of the security branches or for mandatory military service, which means the person cannot legally leave Syria.

"An agreement with the smuggler on the destination of the trip is not enough at this point," says Ahmad, a 22-year-old from the capital. "The deal must include guarantees of no ID checks on government checkpoints."

Ahmad tells Syria Deeply that despite multiple attempts, he had been refused another permit to delay his obligatory military service after graduating from the Commerce Institute of Damascus. "I couldn't imagine myself as a combat officer in the army that has committed war crimes against my people," he says. "I had to risk the journey. It was a choice between life and death."

Different rates for different routes

The cost of the trip differs depending on the nature of the journey and the person being smuggled. While Amal's trip with her brother and her two little daughters cost nearly $1,800, the same journey cost Ahmad, who is wanted by the Syrian government, about $2,500 because the bribes he needed to pay at various government checkpoints were significantly higher.

The smugglers usually take the roads that lead from Damascus to the border through Idlib, Aleppo and Hassakeh. But there is also a more expensive, and less-traveled, air route from Damascus Airport to Qamishli Airport, with the smuggler responsible for getting the "client" into Turkey after arriving at Qamishli Airport.

Other routes cost more or less depending on the situations of the smugglers and the passengers, as well as ever-changing battle lines. While overall costs may fluctuate, the people interviewed for this story said there has been a surge in the cost due to the newly imposed visa regime for Syrians wishing to travel to Turkey.

Adib, 33, made the journey from Damascus to Qamishli. It was his third attempt to leave the country. His first attempt failed after the smuggler suddenly apologized and told him he couldn't finish the trip. "He was a good man, though; he returned the $1,000 fee for the trip," says Adib.

The second attempt cost him a three-week detention in the government's military security branch in Hama Province. "I am a Palestinian-Syrian. I've never been politically active and I am not wanted by government forces. I finished my military service a decade ago," he says.

For Adib, the reasons for his detention still escape him. "I was traveling with around eight other people, mostly Palestinians," he recalls. "As soon as the officer on the checkpoint saw our IDs, he asked us if we were intending to escape to Turkey, and said he would be taking us somewhere else."

"The three weeks I spent there made me confident in my decision to leave the country," Adib, now safely in Turkey, adds. "Therefore I chose to leave from Qamishli Airport, which is comparatively safer, knowing that it was the most expensive route." That route costs about $2,000 in total, Abib explains.

Caught in the crossfire

The illegal journey out of Damascus and into Turkey has become famously difficult. According to Ahmad, originally from Damascus, the scariest moments were when they were stopped at government checkpoints on the way toward the border.

"Every time we stopped at a checkpoint, I felt my heart skip a beat," he says. "Even though we passed through open conflict zones and areas where there was shelling, particularly in northern Hama, the moments when we were stopped at government checkpoints were definitely still the hardest."

Ahmad, now in the Netherlands, recalls the darkest scene along the journey. At one point during his three-day trip to the border, they passed by the remains of a minibus. "It was transporting passengers just like us. Most of them died when a mortar shell hit it," he says.

Not all of the members of his group completed the journey. Some gave up halfway through, and one fellow passenger died from an asthma attack after the group had been forced to hike a long distance across the border.

Amal's clandestine journey from Damascus to Turkey more than 48 hours, nearly five times longer than the trip used to take before the war. Her group, consisting of dozens of people, moved from a stable to an abandoned coal factory, spending a night in the home of one of the smugglers before moving back out into the open. "We walked a lot. Sometimes we rode in minibuses, at other times we were transported in covered trucks," she says.

They had to adapt to different opposition-controlled areas, Amal explains. On approaching a checkpoint manned by the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front, she was told to don the hijab. "I've never done that in my entire life," she says.

Amal says her group's journey was handled by a network of smugglers, not just one person. They were handed over from one smuggler to another. "It's a booming trade that is dependent on the smugglers, government institutions and some of the opposition factions," she explains.

Amal's 48-hour journey was filled with horror: government checkpoints, arrests, snipers. She recalls passing through Maarat al-Numan, a city in Idlib controlled by al-Nusra Front. The once thriving community now looks likes a "ghost town," she says.

"The hardest part, though, was the nine-hour walk before reaching the Turkish border, interrupted by bullets every now and then," says Amal, speaking from Germany. "We stood before a massive mountain and had to cross it on foot. We ran out of water halfway through. I was carrying my two-month-old child. Without the help of my brother and the other passengers, I would have given up and collapsed."

Both Amal and Ahmad, who have since taken the journey by sea from Turkey to the Greek islands, agreed that the journey out of Syria was the hardest part. And while no statistics or accurate numbers exist on the number of people who fail to complete the dangerous journey out of Syria, the stories of those who do make it serve to highlight the horrors of fleeing from a country at war.

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