Europe's Forgotten Refugees

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Two Eritrean minors wait to board a commercial ferry moored on the Greek island of Samos after being released from the island's refugee detention center on May 29. The siblings' mother drowned when the boat on which they were traveling to Europe sank earlier that month. Alfredo D'Amato/UNHCR/Panos

It took Hagos Hadgu 11 traumatic months to travel from Eritrea to his new temporary home in a refugee camp in Sweden. Along the way, he made deals with smugglers, was held captive by terrorists and almost drowned crossing the Mediterranean. And in Libya, so close to the continent he believed would give him and his wife, Natsnet, refuge, he became separated from her. He doesn't know if she is alive or dead.

Throughout the ordeal, what kept 34-year-old Hadgu going was the hope of gaining asylum in Europe. But when he arrived in Italy, he was told by other refugees that getting to the United Kingdom—his preferred destination—would be almost impossible. Since then, and especially in recent weeks, he has come to believe that one thing above all others would help him find a new home in Europe: being Syrian.

Hadgu's sense that Syrians are increasingly being given priority over other refugee populations arriving in Europe as part of the largest migration of people on the continent since World War II is shared by many asylum-seekers. Statements and policy decisions by European officials and governments have compounded this belief that not all refugees arriving in Europe are being treated equally.

In Germany, which receives the largest number of asylum applications of any European country, officials are being increasingly explicit about policies that put Syrians at the front of the line. "Syrians have a prioritized procedure [in Germany] right now," Kira Gehrmann, a spokeswoman for the country's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, tells Newsweek. "They don't need to attend a personal hearing. It is enough when they fill out a written form. Furthermore, they are being prioritized by our staff concerning the processing of their applications."

Following the death of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned off the Turkish coast on September 2, many Europeans and their leaders expressed deep sympathy for Syria's refugees. The British government, for example, announced on September 7 that it would take in 20,000 Syrians over the next five years. In Washington, President Barack Obama told his administration on September 10 to prepare to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, an arrival point for thousands of asylum-seekers, officials held a mass registration for Syrian refugees on September 7, in a bid to clear the growing numbers of asylum-seekers on the island. "Across Europe, Syrians are getting accepted more quickly," says Paul Donohoe, a spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, which is assisting refugees on the island. "Everyone knows that Syria is at war, and everyone knows what they are fleeing from, so that makes things easier."

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A Norwegian Customs official checks the identity of a woman from Eritrea on the night bus traveling from Malmö, Sweden on September 10 in Svinesund, Norway. Norway and Finland raised projections of the number of asylum seekers expected this year, citing a spike in applications last month. Almost a third of the applicants in August were Syrians. Heiko Junge/EPA

In all refugee crises, various factors—including geographical proximity, economic self-interest and pressure from activists and politicians—help shape the decisions made by host governments about which nationalities to open their doors to. Europe is geographically close to Syria, and some of the EU's member states have direct involvement in the region. British air force pilots have been participating this year in airstrikes over Syria as part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. On September 7, French President Franois Hollande announced that France would begin reconnaissance flights over Syria the next day. Once these were concluded, he said, "we will be ready to conduct strikes." Geopolitical reasons aside, Syrian refugees, who are often highly educated, are appealing to countries like Germany, which has an aging labor force.

Inevitably, prioritizing one group can mean neglecting others. While non-Syrian refugees must go through a lengthy asylum process, in which their claims are assessed on a case-by-case basis, they are watching Syrian refugees in some EU countries get asylum almost automatically. "If you feel that you're being ignored, or not being helped, or not having your rights respected, that will cause resentment," says Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of refugee and migrants' rights at Amnesty International. "This resentment happens in every refugee crisis. The issue is not to exacerbate the resentment with policies that only benefit one group."

Hadgu is likely to qualify for refugee status because he fled Eritrea's oppressive regime. He will be interviewed for his asylum claim in October. The odds are on his side because Sweden grants asylum to almost all Eritrean refugees.

But even in Sweden, which last year received the highest number of asylum requests in Europe per capita, there are no guarantees. Hadgu is concerned that Europe's focus on the Syrians is affecting other refugees more generally. "It makes me really sad," he says. "I've been through a lot, and any human rights abuse that you can name happens in Eritrea. The only thing is, we don't have a visible war like in Syria."

Hadgu did not flee war, but his odyssey to Europe was as tough as many of the journeys undertaken by many Syrians. In June, after traveling through Ethiopia and Sudan, Hadgu and his wife finally reached Libya, their crossing point to Europe. As the couple headed in a convoy toward the capital city of Tripoli, fighters from a militia allied with ISIS ambushed the refugees and took 86 Eritreans hostage. Among the captives were Hadgu and his wife. "They let the Muslims go and kept the Christians," says Hadgu, himself a Christian. "I knew what would happen to us. I knew we'd be beheaded."

Preferring to risk being shot, Hadgu and a friend jumped from the truck ISIS fighters were transporting them in. His wife, who was heavily pregnant, couldn't follow. In early August, Hadgu heard through other Eritreans who escaped from ISIS that she was still alive at that point, but he has not had news of her sinceand it torments him. When he escaped, he says, he was thinking only about himself and whether he would survive. "My biggest regret is that I jumped. I should have helped her."

Hadgu eventually arrived in Tripoli and crammed himself into an old wooden boat bound for Italy. On board were 300 other refugees. Three hundred more were being towed behind the front boat in two separate vessels. After 12 hours, seawater began seeping into the lower deck where Hadgu was lying, crammed in with so many other bodies. "All you do," he says, "is pray you get rescued alive."

Eventually, the Italian coast guard spotted the boats and towed all three to shore. Once in Europe, Hadgu made his way to Germany and then to Sweden, arriving just before the Aylan Kurdi tragedy became news.

In Berlin, Talal Hussein, a doctor from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, has been waiting eight months for a ruling on his asylum application. He fled his home five months after ISIS occupied the city in June of last year. "In Mosul there is no life, no salaries, no security," he says. "You cannot say, 'I will live tomorrow.'"

Desperate to start his new life, Hussein says the German government is prioritizing refugees from Syria. This makes little sense, he says, when many people from both countries are fleeing the same tormentor—ISIS. "We have the same situation, we have the same problem, but why we are differentiated I cannot understand. Many Iraqi refugees have now come from Iraq, and the situation here is miserable."

Some refugees, afraid that they might be barred from entering Western Europe as countries like Germany, Austria, Hungary and Croatia try to tighten their border controls, are now claiming to be Syrian to boost their chances of entry. Ewa Moncure, a spokeswoman for EU border management agency Frontex, says that non-Syrian refugees and economic migrants now "see a Syrian passport as their best, but by no means guaranteed, chance of getting asylum."

In an interview on September 1 with French radio station Europe 1, Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said a trade in fake Syrian passports has sprung up, particularly in Turkey. Like many genuine refugees, the people carrying these documents, Leggeri said, "come from North Africa, the Middle East, but they have the profile of economic migrants." Friederike von Tiesenhausen, a spokeswoman for the German Finance Ministry, told reporters on September 4 that customs officials have intercepted mail packages containing both real and fake Syrian passports.

Many Syrians now worry that the influx of fake papers will slow the asylum process and could make European officials suspicious of them too. "I think it's criminal, it's worrying," says Georges Malki, head of the Syrian Swedish Peace Association, a community group that aims to raise awareness of what is happening in Syria and supports President Bashar Assad's regime. "In Sweden now they don't accept too many Syrian identification documents because they believe that they are not given by Syrian authorities."

The trade in false passports may temporarily slow genuine Syrian asylum claims, but it is unlikely to ultimately hinder them. If anything, the scramble for fake papers is just another indication of the pent-up desire among many in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia to find new homes in Europe. As the pressure from the sheer numbers builds on generous countries like Germany and Sweden, their governments will have to make sure they are seen as evenhanded to all refugees. The last thing the continent needs now are communities of newcomers who feel they've been unfairly shut out of the European dream.

Europe's Forgotten Refugees