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Syrians Fleeing Violence Risk Death on Smugglers’ Boats

Over the past year, an increasing number of Syrians have attempted to flee to Europe, crossing the Mediterranean illegally in overcrowded boats at the mercy of smugglers.

Written by Patrick Strickland Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Ein al-Helwe camp, Lebanon – Afaf Dashe has had to flee for her life twice in the 70 years she has been alive. Having been displaced from her homeland in the Galilee region of present-day Israel while she was just three years old, she left her home in the southern outskirts of Damascus two years ago as fighting intensified between rebel forces and the Syrian army.

Today, she lives with her son in the Ein al-Helwe refugee camp, the largest of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Camp officials told Syria Deeply that an estimated 10,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees have sought refuge in the camp since the outbreak of Syria’s unrest in March 2011.

When Afaf and her family fled Syria, three of her daughters and five of her grandchildren chose not to join her and other relatives in Ein al-Helwe. 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 told Syria Deeply as she fought to hold back tears. “The boat sank and they drowned. We found out a year later.”

“Eight lives … gone just like that,” she continued. “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,” Afaf said, “and from catastrophe to catastrophe.” Now in Ein al-Helwe, she says that life hasn’t improved much. “There is no security or work,” she remarked. “We had a good life in Syria. How are we supposed to survive now?”

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 told Syria Deeply. “People want to live normal lives, but they’re denied the right to do so,” he commented. “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. The willingness to take such extreme risks was not left behind in Syria, either. Both Palestinians from the camp and those who have come from Syria have paid smugglers thousands of dollars to take them to Libya by boat. Many have drowned when their boats capsized along the way.

According to the Italian Ministry of Interior’s statistics, at least 25 percent 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 the ongoing crisis in 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 a thousand 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,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty’s UK director. “If they had been holidaymakers, 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 by smugglers, physical abuse, detention, starvation and separation from loved ones. Pinpointing 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, explained that the EU has attempted to place the bulk of the guilt on smugglers as a means of rerouting attention away from 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 told Syria Deeply. “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.”

“The bottom line is the EU has been pushing people back on its eastern borders,” he added. “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 noted 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 of summer months nearing, the number of refugees attempting to turn to human smuggling is expected to sharply increase.

For Afaf and her family, the solution is simple. “Let us live in dignity like the rest of the world,” she concluded. “We need somewhere safe and secure.”

Photo Courtesy of Dylan Collins

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