Syrian refugees’ journey from Jordan to Germany
This field report is part of a project of doctoral research into the networks and dynamics of Syrian exile to Jordan. This research is based on longitudinal monitoring of an ordinary group of refugees from Deir Mqaren – a village in the Rif Dimashq Governorate – and its aim is to analyze and understand the population’s “diasporization” process. Another of its objectives is to show how cross-border trade circulation initiated by the men of Deir Mqaren during the Ottoman era has influenced the migratory paths taken by all the families of the village since 2011. From the 1990s up to the conflict in Syria, the main source of revenues of the inhabitants of Deir Mqaren came from the sale of foodstuffs (dried fruits, nuts and “traditional” sweet products) that the merchants of the village bought in Damascus to sell on in Lebanon and Jordan. However in 2011, the increase of fighting in Syria considerably perturbed this trade which had been based on fluid, unhindered circulation between Deir Mqaren and the surrounding countries. From the start of 2012 onwards, this situation led a growing number of such traders to move permanently to the towns they had previously only visited to sell their merchandise so that they could work there on a permanent basis. In the following months, the regime’s increasing bombing in the Deir Mqaren area led their wives and children to join them but after a temporary stay in Lebanon and Jordan many families preferred to continue their journey to more distant destinations, particularly Germany.
Thanks to communication tools like Whatsapp and Facebook, I managed to stay in contact with some of the refugees I met during my surveys in Jordan in 2014 and 2015. In July 2016, I went to Dortmund in Germany where a family from Deir Mqaren lives. I had kept in touch with them since our first meeting in Amman two years earlier and used participant observation methods to find out about their new daily lives, particularly their representations and habits in their home area. The main ambition of this article is above all to allow my hosts to express themselves. Their stories published in this article are not supposed to be representative of the situation of all Syrian refugees in Germany. The idea is instead to shed new light on the installation of a population from a rural area in an urban environment – a subject which has been covered little in studies of Syrian refugees until now.
How Syrian exile from the Middle East to Germany is structured
At the start of the summer of 2014, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that around 3 million Syrians had left their home country to find refuge abroad, mainly in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. During the same period, signs of stalemate in the Syrian conflict were multiplying particularly following the arrival of new players in the situations such as the “Islamic State organization” with their strong media presence. The Syrian regime has continued dropping its barrels of TNT on the civilian population thus increasing the total number of refugees heading for neighbouring States since 2011. Faced with this population influx and their fear of the Jihadi threat, in June 2014 Jordan decided to close and increase surveillance of its border with Syria (Ababsa, 2015). From then on, only a few dozen Syrians a day have been allowed to enter the country. This blocked situation quickly led to the appearance of two camps built for and by the refugees in the no man’s land between the two countries near the border posts of Hadalat and Rukban1 (HRW, 2016).
By autumn 2014, there were 600,000 Syrian refugees on Jordanian territory2 mostly with precarious jobs in the informal economy sector. The government decided to harden its position in response to the discontent of part of the Jordanian population who complained about the increased negative effects they considered the refugees were having on the housing, jobs and services markets. Police checks on Syrians living and/or working in the country without official authorization had been carried out for several months and these were reinforced. This led to more and more refugees being forced to go back to the Zaatari and Azraq camps or, worse, even back to Syria. During the same period and following a significant reduction in aid funding for refugees paid to international organizations by overseas governments, several families lost the aid they had been receiving from the World Food Programme (WFP) in the form of food vouchers. Many Syrians found themselves plunged into a context of difficult living conditions in Jordan (Doraï, 2015) combined with an increasingly dangerous situation in Syria and therefore chose to go into exile again to try to reach destinations offering more favourable future prospects (Rey, 2015).
The rare beneficiaries of reinstallation procedures coordinated by the UNHCR managed to follow official immigration pathways but the overwhelming majority of refugees were forced to pass through “illegal” channels. Thus by the end of 2014 there had been a considerable increase in the number of departures for Europe. Migratory channels from Jordan were added to routes run by networks of “people smugglers” with well practiced methods. Some of the migrants attempt the dangerous Mediterranean from Libya3 and try to get to the Italian coasts before travelling towards Northern Europe. Paradoxically the “Balkans route” is more expensive for migrants than crossing the Mediterranean and also attracts a growing number of migrants trying to get to Europe. Information circulates rapidly within the networks with the telephone numbers of “reliable” people smugglers being exchanged between relations and friends and in just a few months, as demand increased so the price of the journey from Turkey to Greece dropped considerably. Germany quickly became the favoured destination for the overwhelming majority of Syrians attempting to take refuge in Europe and the route through Central Europe was seen as the best way to get there. The relative openness of European borders at the end of the summer of 2015 meant that it only took around ten days for Syrians to get to Western Europe from the Middle East.
In the summer of 2015, several hundred thousand asylum seekers were trying to get across the border into Germany and barely a year later around 600,000 Syrian refugees were said to have been accepted as refugees in the country. But what happened next for these Syrians once they had arrived in Germany? How do they choose where to settle? What are the conditions for their access to jobs and housing? What is it like for them to be so far away from their own culture, families and friends in the Middle East, elsewhere in Germany or in the rest of the world?
The system to divide refugees up over German territory
Yasmin4, Faysal and their 4 children (three boys and one girl) have been living in Dortmund since February 2016. Yasmin was the first to leave Jordan – at the end of April 2015 – with her two youngest sons and Faatine, one of her closest friends and her neighbour in Deir Mqaren. Faatine, Yasmin and her two sons took a flight to Istanbul where they met Yasmin’s brother who had just arrived from Beirut with one of his friends who was also from Deir Mqaren. Once in Turkey, the group was housed for a night by a person from the village who had been living in Istanbul since 2011 and who had become in charge of putting Syrians hoping to go to Europe with Turkish people smugglers. The closure of European borders had led to them being refused entrance to Germany several times by the Macedonian authorities. They had also had to suffer extortion by the people smugglers who had escorted – and sometimes imprisoned – them on part of the journey. A month and a half after leaving Istanbul, Yasmin and her family entered German territory at the town of Passau where they spent a few days in a “temporary reception centre” before being sent to a “preliminary reception centre for asylum seekers” in the small Bavarian town of Dingolfing.
Yasmin’s husband Faysal, and their two elder children joined the rest of the family in September 2015 after having saved up enough money to pay to cross the Aegean Sea and then travel to Germany. They used the same people smugglers and route as Yasmin but the European borders were slightly more open by then (Heller & Pezzani, 2016) so their journey “only” took seven days. When they arrived in Germany, they first stayed for a fortnight in a “temporary reception centre” in the suburbs of Munich before joining their family in Dingolfing where several friends and family members from Deir Mqaren had settled after leaving Syria, Jordan and Lebanon using the same people smugglers and route.
According to Fouad Hamdan who was in charge of “citizens’ participation” at the central coordination unit for refugees in Hamburg, when refugees arrive at Germany’s borders they are systematically directed to “temporary reception centres for asylum seekers”. Today, the system works fairly well but in 2015, particularly between August and December when the country was faced with a particularly large influx of migrants, a Hamburg town hall civil servant admitted that things had often be improvised and rushed. However, according to the legal procedure, refugees were to spend around 5 days in these centres which were often made up of canvas tents like the refugee camps run by the UNHCR in Southern hemisphere country. Refugees are first given a medical check-up. If they are in good enough health they are sent to an information point where details of the procedure they need to follow are given to them. This stage enables German civil servants to record a first account of the refugees’ stories including their reasons for leaving their countries. They are then given a ticket with a number before other team members take their fingerprints and photo. Next they receive a certificate that they have been registered along with a card with a chip containing their personal information and the place they are to be subsequently housed. After this they are sent to a “preliminary reception centre” – like the one in Dingolfing – where they are looked after and given three meals a day. Refugees stay in such centres for a period of 3 to 6 months until the results of their asylum application come through. A residence permit for 2 or 3 years is systematically given to Syrians seeking asylum in Germany. However, according to Mr. Hamdan5, in reality when refugees get a 2 or 3 year residence permit, this is valid for 5 years because if they request an extra 2 years the permit is automatically renewed as long as they have “behaved well since arriving “. Fouad Hamdan also explained that: “The first period of 3 years corresponds to a training phase aimed at helping refugees to fully integrate into German society. So during these first three years, the refugees learn the language and receive training to learn a profession or attain German standards in professions they worked in at home (…) After three years, they (refugees who have done all the necessary training) will be ready to work quasi-autonomously. Thus the two extra years given to refugees are seen as a minimum return on the investment for German companies and the State. At the end of these five years, the State will take stock of each refugee’s will to be integrated. Let’s stay with the case of Syrians. If after 5 years they are still unable to speak German, if their work is not deemed profitable for society and if the war in Syria is over then they will be told to pack their bags and go home while wishing them good luck for the future!”.
After having obtained their 3-year residence permit, refugees are directed to accommodation where they will generally stay for the next five years. From then on, they no longer have much of a say on where they are to live and only nuclear families – along with certain dependent people – are ever put in the same accommodation or even the same town. For example, it was out of the question for people from Deir Mqaren to all be together in Germany as a whole on community criteria. The first place they live on a long-term basis is determined by the “Königsteiner Schlüssel 6“, a complex distribution system created in 1949 whose aim is to fairly calculate how refugees are spread out over the whole territory. This was therefore the “key” factor which determined the rest of Faysal’s family’s move to Germany. At the end of February 2016, Caritas – the organization in charge of helping refugees find housing if they so request – informed them that a house was available near Dortmund in the Eving neighbourhood. A few days later, having packed their bags and said goodbye to their friends who were staying in Dingolfing, they left for Dortmund on a high-speed train …
Finding a place in a new society, a long and difficult process
– getting a new home ready
When they arrived in their new accommodation, Faysal and Yasmin decided to renovate it. To do this, they asked for help from Faysal’s former business partners who were still in Jordan7 who lent them part of the 5,000 euros required to renovate and furnish their new accommodation. Although the house was relatively dilapidated, the couple were delighted at how big it was. It was in a small building made up of several apartments some of which had been divided into three-story terraced houses.
Each of these houses has three large bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom on each floor, a basement cellar and a little 50-square-metre back garden. The neighbourhood is made up of around ten such buildings with worn walls. Most are inhabited by Eastern European migrants and Kurdish or Iraqi refugees. Indeed, Faysal did not particularly like this situation of social segregation which he found a real handicap to his integration into German society. One of his main concerns was learning the language. “It’s very difficult to discover a new country and learn a new language when you’re 40 with four children! It’s easier for children because they’re young and learn really quickly at school. But for us, it’s different. We have to learn everything all over again – a new way of life and language – and staying here not working surrounded by people who don’t speak German isn’t going to help me improve my situation. (…) Some of our Iraqi neighbours came to Germany nearly 20 years ago and still can’t speak more than about 10 words in German which often prevents them finding work.”
– Daily shopping
Faysal’s daily movements seem strongly influenced by not speaking much German. He systematically goes to the same places, particularly in the Nordmarkt area which is halfway between Eving and Dortmund town centre. The family never goes to this area and Faysal says he has nothing much to do there. The day after my arrival, Faysal and I went to the market in what he calls the Arab quarter, namely Nordmarkt. He goes there regularly to buy things because he can find all the right products to make Syrian meals. It is a “working class neighbourhood” with a large Arab migrant population (mainly from the Maghreb and Lebanon) living alongside Polish, Portuguese, Turkish and Romani immigrants. There is an outdoor market every Tuesday morning on a big square in the neighbourhood.
Most of the stall holders speak Turkish or German with a few words in Arabic which means Faysal can speak with them more easily. When we got to the market, the stall holders were all shutting up shop and Faysal couldn’t find the stall where he usually shopped. He told me that usually he bought from stall holders who he could speak with in his native language to negotiate prices and find out where the products come from. On other days of the week, he does most of his shopping in a Turkish supermarket which is also in the Nordmarkt area. Although he prefers shopping at the market where it is generally cheaper, in this shop he regularly buys damaged fruit and vegetables which he negotiates a price for along with Syrian-Lebanese groceries which he cannot find in other supermarkets (tins of hummus, Ful medames (Fava beans), dried pumpkin seeds, pomegranate molasse, etc.). This means that he hardly ever goes to German shops apart from when he needs building materials and D.I.Y. tools. If that is the case, his 14-year-old son who already speaks good German accompanies him to shops in the retail area between Eving and Nordmarkt to interpret.
– Getting a job
One specific feature of the national system for job access for refugees is that it is directly linked to their ability to speak German. In the context of this, the “job centre” (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) which Faysal spoke to me so often about during my stay was a key place in the refugees’ “integration” process because they found information about job offers or German language training centres there. Also this organization managed the payment of any benefits they were entitled to.
The German State pays the rent and other charges (except electricity which refugees have to pay themselves) including local public transport costs. Also a monthly allowance of 400€ per adult and around 200 euros per child8 is paid to cover the rest of their spending (food, electricity, any travel outside the city, etc.). In fact, these benefits are exactly the same as those paid to an unemployed German national who does not have the right to unemployment benefit. Refugees who have recently arrived have the right to work9 but getting a job depends directly on their level of German with those who do not speak good enough German only getting access to work which is so low paid that it less than the benefits they qualify for. Also when refugees are paid a salary, their benefits are cut to the equivalent of the remuneration paid by their employers to the “job centre”. This procedure is therefore highly frustrating for them. Fouad Hamdan, the Hamburg civil servant mentioned earlier, states that refugees “generally find if very hard to understand how the system works. They have been repeatedly told that they can only get an interesting job if they speak German well enough but they find it really hard to accept. (…) You can only get a job if you can speak German. Of course they would like to do a job which doesn’t require qualifications and nothing is stopping them except that these jobs are badly paid and the State will take the equivalent of their monthly benefits back off their salaries. But again most of them won’t accept this and don’t see the need to work if the State is going to take part of their wages to pay for things they have a right to without working”. To come back to Faysal’s case, although he goes to the “job centre” several times a week hoping to find work, as long as he can’t speak German, he has very little chance of finding a job which will earn him more than he gets in benefits from the German government. This is a situation which he finds very hard to accept. Faysal says: “I worked for two weeks on a building site since I came to Germany. It was really difficult and tiring. I worked over 8 hours a day and at the end of the month, the job centre took the equivalent of my wages to pay the rent on the house. So it looks like people work for free in Europe, is that right? (…) I realize that in Europe, you have to pay takes all the time and you end up with nothing left at the end of the month. Now I live in Germany, I realize that life really was for free (“balash”) in Syria”.
– Future prospects …
Despite the family’s daily difficulties in Germany, Faysal and Yasmin remain extremely grateful to German society for the welcome they have received since they arrived. They are particularly appreciative of the attention and respect shown them by local civil servants. Faysal: “When I go to the job centre, the people who work there are always very responsive to my requests, there are always employees who speak Arabic and everyone is always very courteous with me. It’s the same with the women who teach the children German – they’re lovely and always smiling! When I arrived in Munich with the children, the Germans took us in their arms to welcome us. Even the police respects us here! They are there to ensure our safety not to cause us problems which is totally the opposite to the situation in Syria or Jordan. When we were trying to escape from a war, the Jordanians didn’t even want to let us in and when they did they welcomed us by hitting us with sticks! So even if life is difficult for us here, at least we have rights we didn’t have at home”.
When asked whether they would like to go back to Deir Mqaren if the situation got better in Syria, Faysal and Yasmin both said that this would require Bachar Al Assad and his clan to be no longer in power. Faysal: “The situation in the village has become about normal again now but we still don’t want to go back. Before I can go back to Deir Mqaren, Bachar needs to go and we need another government in power. Because if the war stops but there’s still the same regime, we still wouldn’t be safe in Syria and there would be nothing to stop me having problems or being arrested when I arrive back in the country. But the thing I want the most now is to be able to go back to the village. You for example, although you travel a lot and you spend time in Jordan, your country is France. How much time would you accept to live abroad without seeing your country? 6 months? One, two, maybe three years? And then what? Even if you end up finding your place in another country, nowhere can ever replace where you come from!”.
Field report, July 2016
This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.
- Currently, over 70,000 Syrians are blocked at the north-east border of Jordan. Human Rights Watch regularly denounces the Jordanian authorities’ refusal to allow NGOs to provide humanitarian aid to this population who are kept in inhuman and degrading living conditions because Jordan refuses them access to its territory. [↩]
- This is the number of Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR. [↩]
- Until January 2015, Algeria did not demand visas for Syrian nationals. This meant they could land at Algiers airport where the people smugglers met them to take them to Libya, the departure point for the crossing to the Italian coast after a short transit via Tunisia. [↩]
- All the first names of Syrians mentioned in the text have been changed. [↩]
- This interview was carried out entirely in French. The words used in this transcription have therefore been translated from French to English, unlike the extracts from interviews with Yasmin and Faysal. [↩]
- Literally “the Königstein key” For more information on how this system works please consult the article in Le Monde from September 2015 entitled “En Allemagne, la clé de Königstein permet de repartir les refugiés”. [↩]
- Faysal used to work in the import-export sector between Jordan and Syria before the conflict began. His main activity was supplying nuts, dried fruits and sweet products to Jordanian wholesalers. Part of the travelling salesmen from Deir Mqaren used to regularly go to Jordan to sell these types of products in the country’s different Governorate. He also used to export other types of merchandise to Jordan, particularly textiles. [↩]
- This amount varies slightly according to the age of the children. [↩]
- To be exact, asylum seekers can only work after waiting three months following their arrival in the country (Bundesagentur für Arbeit). [↩]