Syrian refugees finding alternatives to Europe
As Europe increasingly turns the screws on migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, resourceful refugees are finding a range of unlikely and surprising places to find safe havens.
The options for Syrians, particularly, fleeing the war in their country are increasingly few and far between.
Europe’s controversial agreement with Turkey combined with border closures in the Balkans and more restrictive family reunion policies mean that door has essentially slammed shut.
Syria’s neighbours have also largely sealed their borders in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan life is becoming increasingly precarious and difficult for refugees already there – with limited access to jobs and schooling.
Even Syrians who still have wealth, connections or the resources to aim for other destinations, there are not many choices.
Most countries require visas that are virtually impossible for them to obtain. The handful of countries that still welcome Syrians tend to have weak systems in place to support them while they get on their feet; some don’t even recognise them as refugees.
But four countries – Brazil, Sudan, Mauritania and Mali – have emerged as alternative, although difficult, destinations for Syrians and other refugee groups.
Brazil has an open-door policy for Syrian refugees. Since 2013, around 8,000 Syrians have been issued with humanitarian visas by Brazilian consulates in neighbouring countries and over 2,000 asylum claims have been granted.
Most have gone to Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, which has a long history of migrants from Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Syria settling there, and many Arabic restaurants and shops.
It is not surprising that Sudan has become a popular alternative destination for many Syrians. Not only are there regular direct flights between Damascus and Khartoum and no visa requirements, but a shared language and religion can ease the transition.
According to Sudan’s foreign ministry, more than 60,000 Syrians have settled in the country since the start of Syria’s protracted civil war. The real number is probably considerably higher.
A survey conducted by a local NGO in July 2015 found that more than 100,000 Syrians were already living in the country.
Although Sudan does not recognise the Syrians as refugees, they are allowed to work and access state healthcare and education services.
Many of the new arrivals have struggled to adapt to a country where the culture and social norms are foreign and the cost of living high.
While some of the wealthier refugees have established their own businesses such as factories and restaurants, often employing other Syrians, those with no wealth or connections are reduced to begging on the streets.
According to the UNHCR, new arrivals often struggle to find houses to rent, schools for their children, and jobs.
UNHCR is partnering with a Sudanese NGO, Al Manar, to help Syrian refugees with some of their basic needs and diaspora groups are also trying to assist recent arrivals.
Since Algeria started requiring visas for Syrians last year, Mauritania became the only country in North Africa that offered visa-free travel for Syrians. They fly into Nouakchott, the capital, from Turkey or Lebanon.
Officially, there is still no visa requirement for Syrians, but starting in February, dozens of Syrians have been turned back after arriving at the airport in Nouakchott.
The question of papers and legal status is crucial for many of the Syrian refugees in Mauritania who view the poor, mainly Muslim country as a temporary refuge and are hoping for resettlement to Europe or the United States.
Syrian refugees in Mauritania struggle to find work, despite being highly educated.
UNHCR has now registered 405 Syrians, split between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, the economic capital.
This figure does not include those hoping to make their own way to Europe who pass through the country.
UNHCR is assisting the most vulnerable Syrians who remain in Mauritania to pay for their food, medical and schooling costs.
The last 12 months has seen a small but growing number of Syrians taking a long route to Europe via Mauritania, and then overland to the North African coast. But some have end up settling for a while in Mali, along the way.
Many of the Syrians arriving in Mali via Mauritania hope to continue onwards with smugglers and make the perilous journey through Algeria and Morocco to reach the seaside Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Between January and April this year, according to UNHCR, at least 436 Syrian refugees crossed the Mauritania-Mali border.
But Mali is hardly the ideal destination for refugees. Its own four-year-long crisis has left tens of thousands of Malians displaced or living as refugees in neighbouring countries.
Government resources and humanitarian agencies are strained to the limits. Many Syrians say they have received little or no assistance from the authorities or from NGOs. They rely for help on their Malian neighbours, many of whom have themselves been displaced.
Mali has only granted refugee status to 92 Syrians, while a further ten are awaiting the outcome of asylum claims.
AMES Australia Staff Writer