[Published here September 11, 2015]
When rumours spread through Lebanon this week that a massive boat was coming to bring Syrian refugees to Germany, huge crowds rushed to Berlin’s embassy outside Beirut.
To the disappointment of many desperate to escape to Europe’s wealthiest nation, the embassy issued a statement denying the rumour.
But that hasn’t stemmed the flow of Syrians arriving in shared taxis and small vans outside the embassy in the ritzy Mtaileb suburb northeast of the capital.
With their savings long gone and international aid drying up, Germany’s new asylum policy has given hope to Syrian refugees in Lebanon looking for a fresh start.
Several dozen Syrian men, women, and children lined up outside the embassy’s entrance in the muggy late-summer heat on Thursday, clutching identification papers as they shuffled closer to the reception.
During several visits to the embassy this week, refugees told AFP they want to leave for Germany legally — seeking visas and a guaranteed route — but many are also willing to pay smugglers and make the dangerous journey illegally if necessary.
“I have no other choice,” said middle-aged Wissam Youssef, who fled the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib four years ago.
“I heard about this decision and I decided to apply,” the father-of-four added.
But he, like many others eager to take advantage of Germany’s new openness, found themselves rebuffed at the embassy.
“What do you want me to tell you? There’s no asylum and no trips to Germany,” a gruff voice at the reception window responded in Arabic to those enquiring.
Many returned to the benches outside the reception area to share stories and advice about the alternative: the illegal route.
“Ten days from now, if I haven’t gotten a visa to go, I’ll go with smugglers,” Youssef said.
“What am I supposed to do? It’s too late for me. But I want to guarantee a future for my children.”
- ‘German humanity’ –
In Lebanon, refugees can seek asylum in Germany either through the UN’s resettlement programme, or by applying for visas in Lebanon and claiming asylum once they arrive.
But only a handful have been able to take advantage of such programmes in the country, which is hosting more than 1.1 million Syrians despite having a population of just four million.
Berlin’s decision to allow Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany regardless of which country in Europe they reach first has convinced many in Lebanon that now is the time to try to leave.
“Germany is accepting the most refugees and is expressing the most humanity,” said a Syrian man from Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, whose bright green eyes were tinged red from crying.
Declining to give his name, he said he heard about the change in German policies online and through relatives.
Refugees say Germany is providing a lifeline at a time when they are struggling to eke out a living in Lebanon.
More than four years since the Syrian conflict began, the situation for refugees in Lebanon is growing increasingly dire.
In July, the World Food Programme reduced its monthly food aid for Syrian refugees to $13.50 (12 euros) a person.
And Lebanese authorities, overwhelmed by the Syrian influx, have imposed expensive residency renewal procedures on refugees and tightened border restrictions.
- ‘I’d rather die in the sea’ –
“The United Nations is giving us $50 each month for the kids,” said Maher, who was at the embassy with his wife.
“Dying here or dying in the sea is the same thing.”
Even for those willing, an illegal trip is not always an option.
One man with graying hair said he could not afford smugglers’ climbing prices because he had spent his family’s savings trying to survive in Lebanon.
And others have been chastened by photos of those who died trying to reach Europe.
“There are people dying in the sea, and I don’t trust anyone to take my family this way,” said Khalil, a father of six who fled the Kurdish town of Afrin in northern Syria.
He said the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey after his family tried to reach Greece by boat, had convinced him it wasn’t worth risking his family’s life on the migrant route.
Khalil said he would keep applying at different embassies until his family could “go safely”.
But many said they were undeterred by the risks.
“We’ve seen the pictures, we know the journey costs $2,500 per person… But I’d rather die in the sea than starve to death here,” one Syrian man told AFP.
“We’ll travel with smugglers, and we’ll enter (Germany),” added Safa, a Syrian woman with dark eyes in a headscarf who was at the embassy with her son.
“After four years of war, we’ve lived through everything. We’re not afraid of anything anymore.”