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 process of “diasporization”. Another of its objectives is to show how cross-border trade initiated by the men of Deir Mqaren during the Ottoman era has influenced the migratory paths taken by all the families of this village since 2011. From the 1990s up to the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the main source of income 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 in fighting in Syria considerably disrupted 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 to the towns they had previously visited only to sell their merchandise, in order to 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 remote communication tools like Whatsapp and Facebook, I managed to stay in contact with some of the refugees I had met during the investigations I conducted in Jordan in 2014 and 2015. In July 2016, I travelled to Dortmund in Germany (greater Dortmund, to be exact), where a family from Deir Mqaren, with whom I had regularly kept in touch since our first meeting in Amman two years earlier, now lives. Using participant observation methods, I sought to find out more about their new everyday lives, particularly their representations and practices in this new host region. The main aim of this article is above all to allow my hosts to express themselves. Their testimonies, published here, do not purport to be representative of the situation of Syrian refugees in Germany as a whole. The idea instead is simply to shed new light on the settling of a population from a rural area in an urban environment, a subject that 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 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that around 3 million Syrians had left their country to find refuge abroad, mainly in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. During the same period, there were increasing signs of stalemate in the Syrian conflict, particularly following the arrival of new actors such as the much-reported “Islamic State”. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has continued dropping its barrels of TNT on the civilian population, thus increasing the total number of refugees who have headed for neighbouring states since 2011. Faced with this population influx and fear of the jihadist threat, in June 2014 Jordan decided to close and increase surveillance of its border with Syria (Ababsa, 2015). Since then, only a few dozen Syrians a day have been allowed to enter the country. This deadlock 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 already 600,000 Syrian refugees on Jordanian territory2, most of whom have precarious jobs in the informal economy. In response to the discontent of part of the Jordanian population, who complained about the increased pressure the refugees were placing on housing, employment and public services, the government decided to harden its position. Police checks targeting Syrians living and/or working in the country without official authorization had already been in place for several months, and these were reinforced. This led to more and more refugees being forcibly returned to the Zaatari and Azraq camps or, in the worst cases, to Syria. During the same period, and following a significant reduction in aid funding for refugees paid to international organizations by foreign governments, several families saw the withdrawal of the support they had been receiving from the World Food Programme (WFP) in the form of food vouchers. Plunged into a context combining difficult living conditions in Jordan (Doraï, 2015) and a constantly deteriorating situation in Syria, an increasing number of Syrians chose to take the path of exile once again in order to reach destinations offering them more favourable future prospects (Rey, 2015).
While the rare beneficiaries of reinstallation procedures coordinated by UNHCR managed to follow official immigration pathways, the overwhelming majority of refugees were forced to turn to “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 soon ran alongside routes operated by networks of seasoned “people smugglers”. Some of the would-be migrants attempt the dangerous Mediterranean crossing from Libya3 in order to reach the Italian coast before travelling onwards to Northern Europe. Although the “Balkans route” is, paradoxically, more expensive for migrants than crossing the Mediterranean, it too attracts a growing number of migrants trying to reach Europe. Information circulates rapidly within the networks, with the telephone numbers of “reliable” people smugglers being exchanged between relations and friends, and in the space of 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 find refuge in Europe, and the route through Central Europe was the safest way to get there. The relative openness of European borders at the end of the summer of 2015 meant that it now took only around 10 days for Syrians to reach Western Europe from the Middle East.
Over the summer of 2015, several hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers thronged at Germany’s borders, 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? In what conditions do they access jobs and housing? What is it like for them to be so far away from their own culture and from families and friends who remain in the Middle East or have settled elsewhere in Germany or the rest of the world?
The system to distribute refugees across German territory
Yasmin4, Faysal and their four 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. There 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 now puts Syrians hoping to go to Europe in touch with Turkish people smugglers. As a result of the closure of European borders, the journey to Germany had been punctuated by their being refused entry several times by the Macedonian authorities and by the racket of the people smugglers who had escorted – and sometimes imprisoned – them along the way. 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 accommodation 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. Using the same people smugglers and route as Yasmin, but at a moment when the European borders had become slightly more open (Heller & Pezzani, 2016), their journey took “only” seven days. When they arrived in Germany, they passed the first fortnight in a “temporary reception centre” in the suburbs of Munich before joining their family in Dingolfing, where several of their friends and family members from Deir Mqaren joined them from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon using the same networks and the same route.
According to Fouad Hamdan, head of “citizen 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 runs fairly smoothly, but in 2015 – particularly between August and December, when the country was faced with a particularly large influx of migrants – the Hamburg civil servant admits that things were often improvised and rushed. However, in line with the legal procedure, refugees spend around five days in these centres, which are often made up of canvas tents like those found in the refugee camps run by UNHCR in countries of the Global South. The refugees then undergo an initial medical check-up. If they are in good health, they are sent to an information point where they are notified about the details of the procedure they need to follow. This stage is an opportunity for German civil servants to record a first account of the refugees’ stories, thus enabling them to identify the reasons that led the latter to leave their countries. They are then given a ticket with a number before other team members take their fingerprints and photo. Next they receive proof 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. Once this procedure is completed, they are sent to a “preliminary accommodation centre” – like the one in Dingolfing – where they are looked after and given three meals a day. Refugees generally stay in such centres for a period of three to six months, until they are notified about the results of their asylum application. A residence permit for two or three years is systematically given to Syrians seeking asylum in Germany. However, again according to Mr Hamdan5, when refugees are granted a two- or three-year residence permit, this is in reality valid for five years in the sense that if they so request the permit is automatically renewed for an additional two years, provided they have “behaved well since arriving”. Fouad Hamdan also explained that: “The first three-year period is a training phase that is supposed to enable refugees to fully integrate into German society. So, during these first three years, the refugees learn the language and receive vocational training to learn a profession or attain German standards in professions they practised in their home country (…) After three years, they [refugees who have done all the necessary training] will be ready to work almost independently. The two additional years granted to the refugees represent a minimum return on investment for German companies and the state. At the end of these five years, the state will take stock of each refugee’s desire to integrate. Let’s stick with the case of Syrians. If after five years they are still unable to speak German, their work is not profitable to society and 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 three-year residence permit, refugees are sent to accommodation where they will generally stay for the next five years. From then on, they no longer have much of a say as to 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 is out of the question for people from Deir Mqaren to all be grouped together in Germany on community criteria. The first place they live on a long-term basis is determined by the Königsteiner Schlüssel ((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”.)), a complex distribution system created in 1949, whose aim is to calculate fairly how refugees are spread out over the whole territory. This was therefore the “key” factor that determined the rest of Faysal’s family’s journey within 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 once again and said goodbye to their friends who were still in Dingolfing, they left for Dortmund on a high-speed train …
Finding a place in a new society, a long and difficult process
– Settling in to a new home
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 Jordan6 , who lent them some of the €5,000 required to renovate and furnish their new accommodation. Although the house was relatively dilapidated, the couple were delighted at how big it was. It is located in a small building made up of several apartments, some of which have 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 10 such buildings with faded walls. Most are inhabited by Eastern European migrants and Kurdish or Iraqi refugees. Indeed, Faysal does not particularly like this spatial segregation, which he finds a real handicap to his integration into German society. One of his main concerns is 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, a new 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 who came to Germany nearly 20 years ago still can’t string together more than 10 words in German, which often prevents them finding work.”
– Daily shopping
Faysal’s daily movements seem strongly influenced by his (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, where the family never goes and Faysal says he has nothing to do. 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 to a lesser extent Lebanon) living alongside Polish, Portuguese, Turkish and Romani migrants. There is an outdoor market every Tuesday morning on a big square in the neighbourhood.
Most of the stallholders speak Turkish or German and some know a little Arabic, which allows Faysal to communicate with them more easily. When we got to the market, the stallholders were all shutting up shop and Faysal couldn’t find the stall where he usually shopped. He told me that usually he bought from stallholders with whom he could speak 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 is generally able to negotiate a price for, along with a few Syrian-Lebanese groceries that 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 DIY tools. In these cases, his 14-year-old son, who already speaks good German, goes with him to shops in the retail area between Eving and Nordmarkt to act as interpreter.
– Getting a job
One specific feature of the national system entitling refugees to access employment is that it is directly linked to their ability to speak German. In this context, the “job centre” (Bundesagentur für Arbeit), about which Faysal spoke to me so often during my stay, is a key place in the refugees’ process of “integration”. It is here that they find information about job offers or German language training centres. It is also this organization that pays them any benefits to which they are entitled.
The German state pays the rent and other related charges (except electricity, which refugees have to pay for themselves), including local public transport costs. In addition, a monthly allowance of €400 per adult and around €200 per child7 is paid to cover the rest of their expenses (food, electricity, any travel outside the city, etc.). In fact, these benefits are exactly the same as those that would be paid to an unemployed German national who is not entitled to receive unemployment benefit. Although there is nothing to stop recently arrived refugees from working8, the fact that access to employment depends directly on their level of German means that those who do not yet speak the language well enough can access only low-paid positions for which the salary is lower than the benefits to which they are entitled. Furthermore, when refugees are paid a salary, their benefits are reduced by the equivalent of the remuneration paid by their employer 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 it very hard to understand how the system works. No matter how often they are told that they won’t get a good job if they don’t speak German well enough, they still find it really hard to accept (…) You can only get a job if you can speak German. Of course, if they want a job that doesn’t require qualifications, nothing is stopping them, but they will be badly paid and the state will deduct the equivalent of their monthly benefits from their salary. 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 return to Faysal’s case, although he goes to the “job centre” several times a week hoping to find work, until he can speak good enough German he has very little chance of finding a job that will earn him more than he is paid in benefits by the German government. This is a situation that he does indeed find very hard to accept. Faysal says: “I’ve worked for two weeks as a labourer on a building site since I came to Germany. It was really difficult and tiring. I worked over eight 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 taxes 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 particularly appreciate the attention and respect shown to 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 to 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 respect us here! They are there to ensure our safety, not to cause us problems, which is totally the opposite of the situation in Syria or Jordan. When we were trying to escape from the 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 gets better in Syria, Faysal and Yasmin both replied that this would be dependent on Bashar al-Assad and his clan leaving power. Faysal: “The situation in the village has just about returned to normal again, but that doesn’t mean we’re going 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 I’m not at all convinced that I wouldn’t have problems or risk being arrested on arriving in the country. But the thing I want most of all 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 living abroad without seeing your country? Six 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, revised by Helen Tomlinson.
- To be exact, asylum seekers must wait three months following their arrival in the country before starting work (Bundesagentur für Arbeit). [↩]
- This is the number of Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR. [↩]
- Until January 2015, Algeria did not demand visas for Syrian nationals. This meant that 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. [↩]
- Faysal used to work in the import-export sector between Jordan and Syria before the conflict began. His work mainly consisted in supplying nuts, dried fruits and sweet products to Jordanian wholesalers and some of the travelling salesmen from Deir Mqaren who used to regularly go to Jordan to sell these types of products in the country’s different governorates. He also used to export other types of merchandise to Jordan, particularly textiles. [↩]
- This amount varies slightly depending on 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). [↩]