Skip to main content

What's behind the upsurge in Syrian refugees heading to Europe?

MEE speaks to Syrians about why they or their families and friends have decided to head to Europe – particularly this year
A Syrian refugee in the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on 25 September 2015, is on her way to reunite with family in Germany (AFP)

There has been a noticeable upsurge in the number of refugees fleeing to European states, in the hope of resettling in the northern part of the continent, the majority of whom are thought to be Syrian.

There are of course many migrants and refugees from other states in the Middle East and beyond who have risked their lives seeking peace or prosperity in the European Union.  

Many Iraqis, for example, are fleeing areas controlled by the Islamic State (IS) militants. But there also reports that youth in the country's government-controlled south are also looking to migrate, prompting campaigns urging them to stay.  

On one occasion, a Shia militia leader who enjoys a celebrity-like status accused Israel and the US of "conspiring" against Baghdad by luring young Iraqi fighters with money to migrate to America and elsewhere, claiming that Iraq is already being emptied of its youth.

"On Twitter, Israel is inviting anyone who is with the Popular Mobilisation Units or is an Iraqi youth, offering them all their needs in materials, money and stuff," he charged, adding that those who travel for a better life and leave fighting are committing a "great sin".

In neighbouring Iran, many Kurds are reportedly joining the refugee influx to Europe, some due to alleged religious discrimination by the Islamic Republic against their faith.

There have been reports that some are falsely claiming to be Syrian in order to improve their chances of having their asylum applications accepted.

However, the bulk of refugees heading towards the West appears to be from Syria.

And claims among predominately far-right circles that these refugees include IS cells have also been shown to be unsubstantiated.

Multiple reasons

MEE spoke to Syrians who either have sought refuge themselves or are related to those who are trying to reach Europe. Below are a number of reasons they cited:

- Fleeing government barrel bombs and other attacks on rebel-held areas in Syria

- Fleeing government torture or persecution in government-held areas in Syria 

- Fleeing army or militia recruitment in government-held areas in Syria 

- Fleeing torture or persecution in IS-controlled areas in Syria

- Fleeing US-led coalition bombardment of IS-controlled areas in Syria

- Fleeing IS attacks on Kurdish-majority areas in Syria as well as fleeing recruitment for Kurdish militias

- Prevented from returning home by Kurdish militias in Syria, which are accused of "ethnically cleansing" Arabs and Turkmens

- Feeling "sectarian discrimination" or "racism" in Lebanon, in addition to fearing the prospect of being forced to return to Syria

- Suffering from poor living conditions and lack of aid in the camps in Jordan

- Fearing renewed "mistreatment" in Egypt

- Fearing that once the ruling AK party is no longer in power or has to share power, Turkey's opposition would no longer welcome them

- Fearing visa or residencies might not be renewed at some point in the future in Gulf states 

- Fearing becoming long-term refugees without the prospect of living a normal life 

Why now?

A number of reasons were suggested as regards to why there has been an apparent increase in the number of Syrians heading towards the West recently, despite the fact that civil war had been raging now for over four years.

The loss of hope and the yearning for long-term stability are commonly cited reasons.

"Hope [is] becoming dimmer and dimmer and conditions becoming even harder, no one should question or be amazed at the large numbers of Syrians risking their lives to get to Europe," said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming.  

Many Syrians have lost hope in finding a political or a military solution to their county's war.

"The people were hoping that Assad would go sooner. As he clings to power with foreign support, the people of Syria have decided to leave instead," a Syrian refugee in Turkey told MEE, requesting anonymity.  

"Look at the suffering of our Palestinian brothers: Arabs had fought – and lost – wars for them [against Israel] and they remain refugees today. How can we (Syrians) defeat the more brutal Persian occupation?" he added, in a reference to Iran's backing of Assad.

"When the (March 2011) uprising began in Syria, people were optimistic: it was soon after the [quick] fall of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Everyone was out protesting, now the cities are almost empty."    

[Video purportedly showing Syrian protestors chanting and singing for the "downfall of the regime" in Hama on 22-07-2011]

His views were shared by Safaa Jomaa, a Syrian student based in London.

"People can't put their lives on hold forever waiting for Assad to fall. They need stability and they wish to lead normal lives, that's why many who are already outside Syria are going to Europe," she told MEE.

"In Europe, we would not be threatened with the prospect of being forced to return to Syria," she added. 

Life has also become less tolerable after living prolonged periods as a refugee in neighbouring countries.

"Many Syrians in Lebanon complain that prices are too high for them, especially after spending their humble savings there," Emad Karkas, a Syrian journalist in Idlib, told MEE.

"Add to that, in some areas they face abuse and curfews after 9:00pm imposed on Syrians alone by Hezbollah, which if you break you could be severely beaten or kicked out of the area for good," he added. 

Shifting grounds

On the ground in Syria, residents of war zones have been fleeing to safer places, sometimes regardless of who was in control of these territories.

But as fighting appears to have become more intense, such areas have become more scares.

Those who had previously fled to IS-held territories because government airstrikes rarely targeted these areas have now been under US-led coalition bombardment for more than a year.

Life there, already difficult, has also reportedly become more unbearable as IS militants under bombardment become less tolerant of dissent. 

Meanwhile in government-held areas, people are also leaving for a variety of reasons.

For example, rebel fire has killed civilians in the government-held side of Aleppo more frequently than before.

Damascus itself had been hit with electricity and water cuts and many believe that its relative safety would not go on for much longer.

Also, many members of the Alawite community, from which Assad hails, are fleeing forced conscription that began last year, as the national army has almost halved due to deaths, defections and desertions.

The high number of deaths among pro-Assad forces, whether from the regular army or the numerous militias, has led many Sunnis in government-held areas to fear a sectarian backlash.

'No place to hide'

Indeed, government revenge against rebel-controlled areas has been reported to be the reason behind an escalation of attacks carried out by pro-Assad forces against the civilian populations there. 

"Assad's barrel bombs play a particularly big part in forcing millions of Syrians from their country," Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, wrote recently.

"In most wars, civilians can find a modicum of safety by moving away from the front lines. But Assad’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs deep in opposition-held territory means that many have no place to hide," he added.

There appear to be less people from IS-held areas fleeing to Europe. 

"They come from every corner of Syria, but mainly the government and rebel-held areas that are more densely populated and more fiercely contested than the desert territories held by the Islamic State," wrote Liz Sly, in the Washington Post.

According to Rami Al-Sayed, a Syrian media activist in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, many Syrians are claiming to be fleeing IS militants when in reality they are fleeing pro-Assad forces.

"Syrians believe that the West does not really care about the atrocities committed by the Assad regime. They think the West is obsessed with ISIS only," he told MEE.

"That's why even when they are running for their lives from the Assad regime, when they reach Europe they would automatically mention ISIS," he added.

Despite this, however, the majority of Syrians who have made it to Germany in 2015 said that they had fled their country due to Assad, according a survey of nearly 900 people.

Turkish calls for Syrian 'safe zone'

Another possible reason why many Syrians have been reaching the shores of Europe is because this summer, it has become easier.

Almost 3,500 people from different parts of the world have reportedly drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, mostly via Libya, in 2014. More than 200,000 made it to Europe during the same year.

During 2015, however, the total number reaching Europe is approaching 400,000 so far, according to UNHCR figures, and is expected to reach 530,000 by the end of year. The largest crossing point has been via Greece, followed by Italy.

Zakaria Moutlak, a former Syrian rebel fighter, claimed that the reason more refugees are entering Europe is because Turkey is looking the other way as they cross the border.

"Ever since Kurdish militants relaunched their attacks in Turkey, the [Turkish] government has been pressing [the West] even more for the establishment of a safe zone inside Syria," Moutlak told MEE.

"Turkey saw the West as indifferent to (Turkish) national security, so it allowed refugees to pass through to Europe as a form of pressure to establish the safe zone," he added.