As Greece begins shipping migrants back to Turkey this week, Syrians are finding new alternatives to the increasingly difficult journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. One of these routes takes refugees to Brazil and into French Guiana, a French territory on the northeastern coast of South America, just above Brazil, where refugees can more easily establish legal residency in a French territory while applying for asylum in Europe.
“I learned from friends who were living in Europe that many Africans travel to Europe this way,” said Mohammed, a 27-year-old from Homs had fled to Lebanon in 2012 as the war in Syria became increasingly violent. “One month after applying, I received my visa, and they gave me 90 days to enter Brazil,” he said.
Several months after arriving in Beirut, he walked into the Brazilian embassy and applied for a tourist visa. “I had never imagined the journey would be so easy,” he said.
Brazil is one of the very few countries that does not impose a strict visa regime on Syrians. They can still obtain tourism, work, and student visas with relative ease.
After receiving his visa, Mohammed flew to São Paulo, and from there, used buses and a domestic flight to reach French Guiana. He said the relative ease of the journey meant hiring a smuggler was unnecessary.
“Most people cross into French Guiana at a bridge over the Oyapok River, but for illegal crossings, there are daily boats that transport workers and farmers. I wasn’t asked for any documents to get into these boats, and the only cost was the boat fare,” he said.
“I didn’t even know how much the boat fare was,” he said, “so I handed the driver, who didn’t speak any English, a few Brazilian reals, and he was OK with it.”
After crossing the border, Mohammed hitched into town and turned himself in at the police station, just as all refugees do in Europe. “I waited at the police station for a few hours, and in the morning, I was transported with another 20 migrants to the capital, Cayenne,” he said.
According to Mohammed, many other Syrians have made the same journey. In his group alone, he said, there were three other Syrians and two Iraqis.
In the capital, French authorities registered the refugees and told them they would need to wait for about a month for their papers to be processed.
“The French authorities provided accommodation for families, but those of us who were single had to take care of ourselves,” said Mohammed. “There were many people like us waiting for their papers. Most of them spent their nights on the beach because they didn’t have the money to rent a room.”
Mohammed, who was similarly low on cash, had made fast friends with the Syrian and Iraqi men he met on the way to the capital. They were quick to offer him a spot in their rented flat.
Two months later, and after three visits to French immigration and integration offices, Mohammed received a one-year, temporary residency. This provided him with legal status in French Guiana while he waited for his case to be processed.
“I was allowed to work, so I found a job in a fast food restaurant, but I wasn’t allowed to travel to France or to any other European country because I didn’t have the travel document that most other refugees receive.”
After seven months of waiting, Mohammed finally obtained humanitarian asylum in France and will soon be moving to the “European part of France,” as he calls it.
“Now I know that the territories of France are located in many other places besides Europe. I am legally allowed to go to France, but I have to pay for the trip from my own pocket, which I am currently saving for,” he said.
He currently receives a monthly stipend of 300 euros per month from the French government, in addition to housing and a travel document.
Although a great deal longer, Mohammed said his alternative route to Europe was much safer than the short boat trip across the Mediterranean. In 2015 alone, more than 2,500 people drowned or went missing on their journey, according to the U.N.’s Refugee Agency.
The cost of flight to Brazil is nearly the same price as the illegal journey across the Mediterranean. The trip cost him about $3,000, including airfare and travel costs from Brazil to French Guiana.
Mohammed has urged his younger brother, 23, to make the same journey. “I asked him to proceed as soon as possible. This journey won’t be that easy forever,” he said. “Soon enough, the numbers taking this journey will increase, and consequently, just as it happened in Europe, the rules will tighten.”
His brother is set to fly to Brazil within the next few weeks.