The Syrian Refugees Who Pay With Their Lives To Leave

A growing number of Syrians have been trying to escape to Europe over the past year, some meeting their tragic ends after paying smugglers to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats.

Immigrants being rescued in Libya
Immigrants being rescued in Libya
Patrick Strickland

EIN EL-HILWEH — Afaf Dashe has had to flee for her life twice in the 70 years she has been alive. She was displaced from her homeland in the Galilee region of present-day Israel as a 3-year-old, and two years ago she left her home in the southern outskirts of Damascus as fights intensified between rebel forces and the Syrian army.

Today, she lives with her son in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, the largest of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Camp officials say that an estimated 10,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees have sought safety in the camp since the outbreak of Syrian unrest in March 2011.

When Dashe and her family fled Syria, three of her daughters and five of her grandchildren chose not to join her and other relatives in Ein el-Hilweh. Instead, they paid smugglers to take them by boat to Libya. From there, they intended to continue on to Europe. "But they all died at sea," she says, fighting to hold back tears. "The boat sank and they drowned. We found out a year later."

"Eight lives, gone just like that," she continues. "We miss them so much. I miss them." Her children and grandchildren are among the tens of thousands who have attempted to escape the ongoing bloodshed in Syria by risking death at sea. As of October 2014, some estimates suggest that between 16,000 and 20,000 Syrians had been rescued at sea while en route to Europe.

"For my whole life, I've seen Palestinians move from tragedy to tragedy," Dashe says, "and from catastrophe to catastrophe." Now in Ein el-Hilweh, she says that life hasn't improved much. "There is no security or work," she says. "We had a good life in Syria. How are we supposed to survive now?"

Risking everything

The harsh restrictions placed on Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon have created a dangerous feeling of desperation among the camp's youth, her son Eyad says. "People want to live normal lives, but they're denied the right to do so," he says. "We cannot even take loans from banks simply because we are not Lebanese."

Yet staying in Syria entails serious risks, including the immediate threat of violence as well as the severe electricity, water and food shortages that plague many parts of the country.

According to statistics from the Italian Ministry of Interior, at least 25% of the more than 170,000 refugees who arrived in Italy by boat in 2014 were Syrian. In 2014, an estimated 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea with smugglers, and 3,500 died, the United Nations refugee agency reported.

Not limited to refugees fleeing Syria, the dangerous trend of escaping by sea has increased dramatically in the first four months of 2015, according to human rights groups. A new report issued by Amnesty International found that more than 1,000 refugees died in a single week while crossing the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

"The equivalent of five passenger planes full of people have drowned last week alone, and this is only the start of the summer," says Kate Allen, Amnesty's UK director. "If they had been vacationers instead of migrants imagine the response."

In addition to risking their lives, refugees, among them Syrians, who turn to human smuggling by sea, face exploitation, physical abuse, detention, starvation and separation from loved ones. Blaming European Union authorities for "negligence," Amnesty International reported that there has been "a more than 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths since the beginning of 2015 compared with last year."

Gerry Simpson, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch's refugee program, explains that the EU has attempted to place the bulk of the blame on smugglers as a means of shrugging off its own responsibility. "European Union officials are putting forward a false common enemy around which everyone can rally in order to detract attention from EU policies towards refugees," Simpson says. "This is not about the smugglers themselves. This is about the EU failing to make good on its obligations to refugees, first being search and rescue and the second providing a regular means of entrance."

He adds that the EU has been pushing people back on its eastern borders. "Syrians, for instance, have been forced to find other means, which includes boats from Syria to Libya or boats from Turkey to Greece."

Though "saturated with refugees," Simpson notes that Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have also contributed to human smuggling by turning away Syrians seeking refuge on the borders. With more amicable weather and sea conditions nearing, the number of refugees attempting to turn to human smuggling is expected to increase sharply.

For Dashe and her family, the solution is simple. "Let us live in dignity like the rest of the world," she says. "We need somewhere safe and secure."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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