Analysis |

Asylum Seekers in Europe Have Nowhere to Run

In contrast to the warm welcome refugees received early on in the Syrian war, the goal now is to encourage asylum seekers to leave

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Migrants and refugees wait to board a train shortly after arriving in Munich, Germany, 2015.
Migrants and refugees wait to board a train shortly after arriving in Munich, Germany, 2015.Credit: אי־פי
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“I’ll get back to Germany, even if I have to swim. Here in Morocco I have no life,” the young Moroccan Nassim Joheir told the German website Qantara. Joheir arrived in Germany in 2015 and waited more than three years to receive the refugee status that would grant him permanent residency there. Lacking a profession, he worked odd jobs, learned German and hoped to integrate into German society, learn a trade, make a living and fulfill the German dream.

But about a year ago a letter came in the mail with the bad news that he would not be given refugee status. He would have to leave the country immediately and go back to Morocco. Joheir says he had paid 11,000 euros to smugglers to bring him over the border from Turkey to Europe, almost drowned at sea, and now “in one minute, in an envelope, my dream burst” – he was back to the reality that had led him to flee his home in the first place.

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According to figures from the German Ministry of Immigration, some 665 immigrants from Morocco were deported in 2018 and this year it looks like the number will be even higher. Joheir is not persecuted in his country, his life is not in danger and the regime in Morocco is not threatening to jail him. Millions of young men like him in Morocco and across the Middle East and Africa only want to live their dream and find themselves a better life. Leaving for Europe, no matter how dangerous the journey, is an act of despair and distress. It is considered heroic and even a source of pride for them and their families.

But Joheir says that when he went back to Morocco, his friends and relatives acted cool toward him. One of his friends told him that if it were him, he wouldn’t have left Germany. His family hoped that he would be able to stay there, perhaps obtain German citizenship one day and bring them over, like thousands of other refugee families who had “made it.” Now he is a disappointment to them and has to start over without any money or government aid.

Alienation and even hostility is the attitude that greets people who return to their homeland, even if they aren’t refugees who were deported, a Turk who recently moved back from Germany to Turkey told Haaretz. “I was born in Turkey but I lived for many years in Germany. My Turkish is very basic and I can’t make Turkish friends. The main problem is that they see me as a traitor who left Turkey, lived the good life abroad and made money and a good living while they were forced to live under the Turkish regime and chase after their livelihood,” he said. He finally managed to find work as a computer technician in Ankara, he said, but he knows many returnees who don’t even make it to an interview because they’re seen as trying to replace Turkish workers. “They’re called ‘Germans’ and treated as enemies of the state,” he said.

They spend their many free hours in coffee shops where others returnees gather. They speak German, remember their time abroad and ask themselves why they left.

Still, their situation is better than that of millions of refugees who are in Europe, but incarcerated in reception centers, waiting until their resident status is resolved. In Germany they receive minimal assistance in money and food, and for many there is an opportunity to learn German in government-sponsored courses taught by volunteers. But not all the centers are the same. One of the infuriating phenomena is their response to violence between refugees and especially the harassment of women.

The website Al Muhajer (“the immigrant”), which gives advice and guidance to immigrants from Arab countries to Europe, tells of women who lodged complaints against advisers and center employees who took advantage of their status and assaulted them. In some centers, the men’s and women’s showers and toilets are not separate, which encourages voyeurism at the very least and in the worst cases, rape.

The centers usually have a hotline women can call if they are being harassed or have been assaulted, or just to get advice, but few women use it because they are afraid that a complaint will harm their chances of gaining refugee status. Al Muhajer tells women that they don’t need to worry if they complain, because doing so is within their rights. But the women worry that their complaint will pit them against the men who assaulted them – whether they are center employees or other refugees – and they could respond violently.

According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures, women constitute 40 percent of asylum seekers; there are great efforts to help women refugees who live in facilities that are far from population centers and who don’t know the local culture because of language or limited accessibility. Most of these women don’t have a profession or work experience that would enable them to support themselves beyond government assistance. But in contrast to the warm welcome refugees received in the first years of the Syrian civil war, there is now a new trend. According to employees at reception centers, it seems that the assistance policy has changed: The goal now is to encourage asylum seekers to leave Europe.

Sweden, for example, is reevaluating how dangerous Syria is for returning citizens; Italy and Greece have imposed harsh restrictions on refugee aid and even on rescuing those arriving by sea. This policy will also impact the aid given to people living at reception centers and especially the fate of their requests for permanent residency status.

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