Fleeing violence, Syrian refugees find new homes in Germany

Fleeing violence, Syrian refugees find new homes in Germanyimage

10 Dec 2014

One year ago, Ziad fled the Syrian city of Idlib, together with his wife and five children. The family (whose identity is concealed) escaped after mortar fire damaged their home. They went to Lebanon and registered with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Beirut. Upon review of their case, they won a spot in Germany’s humanitarian admission program for Syrian refugees. On Nov. 18, they were chartered from Lebanon directly to Germany, where they immediately got residence permits, as well as social benefits and medical care. “We are very grateful to all the German people and to the German government,” Ziad told Al Jazeera in a reception center in the German town of Friedland, with his family by his side. “This is a very humane thing for them to do, to help us in this situation.” The successful resettlement of Ziad and his family in Germany is an example of how the international community can provide Syria’s refugees a chance to restart their lives outside the Middle East. But such successes are rare. Syria’s neighbors are overstretched, hosting more than 3.2 million Syrian refugees — the rest of the world’s countries offered humanitarian admission to less than 62,000 Syrians, a “pitiful number,” according to Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch recommended increasing resettlement quotas and humanitarian visas as measures of facilitating safe and legal routes to Europe for refugees. UNHCR has also urged European countries to increase humanitarian admission of Syrian refugees, in light of the severity of the crisis. The response of Europe — and of the rest of the international community — will be heard Dec. 9 at a U.N. pledging conference in Geneva, where countries will announce their quotas for humanitarian admission of Syrians in 2015-2016. The new admission quotas will show just how much the international community is committed to helping victims of Syria’s wars and whether Germany continues to lead the way. In the past two years, Germany has pledged to admit 30,000 Syrians on humanitarian grounds, a number that is higher than the quotas of the rest of Europe, Australia and Canada combined. Ariane Rummery, spokeswoman for UNHCR, described Germany’s humanitarian admission program as generous. She suggested such initiatives, in which legal pathways to Europe for refugees are created, could help address the rising death toll in the Mediterranean Sea’s human-trafficking routes. “Certainly the lack of safer and legal alternatives to find protection in industrialized countries is part of what drives people to take dangerous sea journeys or other so-called irregular movements,” said Rummery, adding that humanitarian admission scheme practiced by Germany should serve as an example for other governments. “This is an important and concrete way the international community can share the burden of what is the most dramatic humanitarian crisis of our time.” More than 3,000 people have died at sea this year while attempting “irregular movements” to Europe. Of those who survived the sea trafficking routes and reached European shores, a third were Syrian. Upon their arrival, they applied for asylum in one of the EU’s member states. The number of Syrian asylum applications in Europe has been on the rise in the past two years, peaking with 46,560 applicants in the first half of 2014. Germany is taking on a lion’s share of Europe’s asylum applicants. The Germans handled more asylum applications from Syrians — 48,000 since 2011 — than any other European country. In 2012, Germany surpassed France as the European country with the most asylum seekers. That trend continued over the next two years. Taking in so many people in such a short time creates a challenge for the local municipalities that host the refugees, according to Thomas Langwald, deputy head of the humanitarian admissions and resettlement unit at Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. “At the moment we also have a very large number of asylum seekers in Germany, therefore the whole system is somewhat under pressure,” said Langwald. “For all involved in the field of refugee protection and asylum, there is a lot to do.” Langwald said Germany has spent around 520 million Euros (or about $640 million) on humanitarian efforts connected to the crisis in Syria. Part of that sum goes to building reception centers for refugees across the country, like the one in Friedland, where Ziad and his family stayed during their first two weeks in Germany. The Friedland reception center, which is located in the heart of Germany, four hours drive southwest of Berlin, serves both resettled Syrians and asylum seekers from various countries (mainly from Syria and Eritrea). The center has the capacity to host 700 people and it has been full for most of the past year, according to Heinrich Hörnschemeyer, manager of the facility. He said the people staying in the camp are provided with warm meals, language courses and counseling services to make integration in the German society as smooth as possible. After 14 days in Friedland, Syrian refugees who are in the humanitarian admission program are allocated to communities throughout Germany. To distribute the load evenly, each federal state resettles Syrian refugees in proportion to its share of the general population. The family ties that refugees have to people already living in Germany are taken into account. The closer these family ties, the greater the chance the refugees will be distributed to the same federal state as their relatives. Ziad has no relatives in Germany. His family has been assigned to Bavaria, in south Germany, but he doesn’t know whether they will be living in an apartment or in refugee dormitories. He is focusing now on learning German and getting treatment for his son who is physically disabled. Ziad said all he wants now if for his family to live in peace, and his kids to have education. For millions of Syrian refugees back in the Middle East and for the countries hosting them, Dec. 9 is a much-anticipated date. The quotas that will be announced in Geneva will have direct impact on the lives of millions of people. Ziad, who has friends and family members back in Lebanon, says he hopes many other Syrians will get the same resettlement opportunity he got, in Germany and in other destinations. “Germany did a big favor to the Syrian people. They brought here a lot of people,” Ziad said. “Other European countries should do the same.”