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UAE refuge is ‘something special’, say Syrians who fled civil war

One-page article

Having fled Syria’s civil war, about 120,000 Syrians have found a sanctuary in the UAE between 2011 and last year. Six of them tell of their yearning for their country’s peaceful past and their wish for a better life

Six years ago on March 15, fighting erupted in Syria that would change the face of the country forever.

In 2011, the regime of Bashar Al Assad clashed with anti-government forces in battles that would later involve ISIL, Al Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army, leaving cities in ruins.

Consequently, about 5 million Syrians fled to neighbouring countries in what has become the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.

More than 120,000 Syrians moved to the UAE and were given residency visas between 2011 and last year. That nearly doubled the Syrian population in the UAE to 240,000 as of last September.

Last summer, the Government said it would take in 15,000 refugees in the coming years.

The Syrian families that arrived here have found peace and employment. But most have lost their homes and are unable to return. Some have also struggled to find places for their children in schools and struggled with the costs of living. Here, six Syrians who fled tell their stories.


snailMohammed Taha, 29, hails from Aleppo. Alex Atack for The National

Homeless and in search of dignity

Name: Mohammed Taha

Age: 29

From: Aleppo

Profession: He was a butcher and a chef. He is currently jobless.

Lives: On Dubai’s streets and in mosques

“I left my country to escape serving in Bashar Al Assad’s army or any party involved in destroying my country and killing my people. All we saw was bloodshed and I was terrified.

“I was supposed to serve in the army as part of the compulsory military service, but I fled Syria in 2014 when the war became severe.

“Both the regime and the extremist rebels were bombing the country with all kinds of weapons.

“My family’s home in Aleppo was levelled, bombed into the ground – just like many buildings and homes.

“My brother and I left Syria in search of a new life. We were lucky to have escaped the war in our country but our plight continues.

“My brother went to Turkey and I came to Dubai.

“I was lucky enough to find a job in a restaurant serving

Arabic cuisine in Satwa, where I rented a bed space in an apartment.

“The two owners of the restaurant, a Syrian and a Palestinian, had a fight and decided to close the restaurant. My residency visa was consequently cancelled.

“Afterwards, I worked in another restaurant. The owner said he had to test my culinary skills for a month. I accepted and worked with an invalid residency visa. After the test period,the restaurant owner refused to renew my residency visa and gave me half of my salary. That meant that I could no longer stay in Satwa, so I looked elsewhere for a cheaper place.

“I moved to an apartment in Hor Al Anz and lived with some Asians. The bed space cost Dh400. I kept looking for a job. But with my bad luck, the owners of the restaurants I sought employment at asked me to work for a period of time. But after the period passed, they refused to renew my residency visa or give me my pay.

“Many of them said that ‘we don’t renew residency visas for Syrians’.

“I ran out of money and I have been on the streets since last June. I sleep now in mosques in Muraqqabat. Sometimes I sleep in parks, and I ask the restaurants nearby for food and water.

“I have been to charity organisations and people there told me that they only give money to families, women and the elderly.

“I don’t know what to do. I feel like people have stopped helping one another. I go out looking for work daily but I hear the same excuses.

“I only want to work for Dh2,000 or even Dh1,500 a month and get a residency visa. I came here to live with dignity.”

* Nawal Al Ramahi


snailNauran Al Chalati’s family members use Skype to communicate. Victor Besa for The National

A family separated by war finds togetherness online

Name: Nauran Al Chalati

Age: 27

From: Damascus

Profession: Formerly a student in Damascus, she is now a video editor at a production house in Dubai Media City.

Lives: In Dubai since 2013 with her eldest sister. Her brother and father remain in Damascus.

“Your home country is like your foundation. The moment you leave, especially in a panic, you lose equilibrium. This is exactly what happened to my family. We are all struggling, making our own little worlds far from one another.

“I don’t know when I will be able to have a meal with my siblings and my father that is cooked by my mother. It looks like a dream.

“I graduated from a private university in Damascus in 2013 at the age of 22. I was unable to start my career in Damascus because there was no job or security. Things were getting horrible and my mother realised that there was no future for her family in Syria. Since then, my family has been separated, living in different parts of the world.

“I moved to the UAE in April 2013 when my elder brother, who was working in Dubai at the time, sponsored a tourist visa. All of us, except one of my brothers, came here in 2013. My brother was not able to leave the country and did not want to leave my father alone.

“My family spends a few months together in Dubai. My father applied for jobs here but failed and had to return to Damascus. My mother decided to move to the United States as a refugee.

“She always believed that we would be in safe hands if we settled in the US. My brother in Dubai joined her after a few months. My sister and I still live in Dubai.

“But there are no more family dinners. We don’t celebrate festivals together. We can only see one another on Skype. This is the price my family has paid because of the conflict in Syria.

“I don’t believe that one day things will be OK in Syria. They won’t be, at least not in the near future. I want my family and I to be settled. I want to take my father and brother out of Damascus safely. A peaceful life is my dream but this peaceful life will not be in Syria.”

* Amna Ehtesham Khaishgi


snailArtist Mohannad Orabi says Dubai has made him more open in his approach to people of different nationalities and cultures. Christopher Pike / The National

Daughter eases portraits of sorrow

Name: Mohannad Orabi

Age: 39

From: Damascus

Profession: An artist in Syria, he now paints in a studio adjacent to Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue

Lives: In Dubai with his wife and daughter.

“There are emotions that you feel for the things you leave behind. Each day we hear news from my country. I have had bad experiences, I lost people close to me in this war.

“I had visited Dubai three or four times as a tourist, but making my decision to stay was a completely different experience.

“The first impression was that Dubai was a little bit difficult. The lifestyle in Dubai is completely different to those in Damascus and Cairo. I had lived in Cairo for a year and a half before moving to Dubai in 2014.

“It’s very difficult to be outside my country, but it’s difficult to go back to Syria.

“My daughter is happy at school, she has a lot of friends. It has been faster for her to become part of a community than for my wife and I.

“I have two brothers in Syria and we call one another every day. I still have friends in Syria. I try to connect my family there with my daughter. We send pictures and communicate on social media.

“I have learnt from my wife, who is a graphic designer. She was working in Damascus for five or six years, but in Dubai it’s difficult to find a job even though she speaks good English and Arabic. She keeps trying, goes for interviews and sends her resume.

“I left my house, my studio, my car and my paintings. My brother tries to visit my house to check on my belongings.

“I remember a painting I started to draw but didn’t finish. I hope that I will go back to Syria and complete my painting.

“I could feel the sadness in my previous paintings because of what I have left in Syria and what has happened in my country.

“Now there is a little hope in my paintings. This hope perhaps comes from my daughter when I see her smile and being happy.

“Maybe when I see my daughter, this is the image I want to see of my country.

“I know that after all these dark days that we have endured, there is light. It’s coming soon.

“In Dubai, there is a different effect because there is an emotional influence of the place you move into. Dubai is the capital city of art in the Middle East. But the most important thing in Dubai is that I don’t feel strange because there are people from different nationalities and cultures. It’s a global city, it’s made me more open. For me, it’s very important to respect differences between one another. That influences my work.

“I was at a workshop in a university in Egypt and brought my family with me for one or two months. It is now almost five years since I left Syria.”

* Ramola Talwar Badam


snailAsmaa Kftarou says non-discrimination between religions in Syria in the past is present in the UAE. Antonie Robertson / The National

Syria in their hearts, gratitude to UAE

Name: Asmaa Kftarou

Age: 44

From: Damascus

Profession: She was a civil servant at the ministry of religious affairs. She is currently unemployed

Lives: In Sharjah with her husband and five daughters.

“When I speak about Syria, despite the thousands of broken hearts, the unspeakable killings and the pain and suffering of millions who had no option but to flee in fear of their lives, I remain hopeful that the country will return to its former glory; that its soul is still intact; and that Syria will warmly embrace those people who are longing to return home.

“I’m from a well-known family in Damascus. My family come from a long line of Islamic educators and religious scholars in Damascus. My grandfather was the grand mufti for 41 years. He was known internationally and he spread Islam’s message of peace and love.

“Until 2010, I was working in the ministry of Islamic affairs in Damascus. I engaged in Islamic studies and taught Islam in schools in the capital. We had a stable and wonderful life in Syria.

“In 2011, when the killings started and after my husband, a member of parliament, barely escaped an assassination attempt, we had to leave Damascus out of fear for our daughters’ safety.

“Since then, I have been suffering deeply because I miss my family in Damascus and my country. To see what has happened to Syria saddens me to the core.

“We never once in Syria differentiated between different religions. We are all the sons and daughters of God and there was never anything but love between us. We’ve always tried to be accepting and good to people despite our differences. We tried to look beyond that to live together, and that’s how we had always lived in Syria.

“We found in the UAE a home that promotes peace and love between people, be they Syrian or Danish. There is a unity here that is truly special.

“Nevertheless, I haven’t found work here. I am still waiting to return home and begin to rebuild.

“It has been very difficult. We have five daughters, four of whom are studying. We need to support them.

“My husband has just finished his contract as an academic at Abu Dhabi University. They haven’t renewed it.

“My husband was of great importance in Damascus as a parliamentarian and a teacher. For him to be out of a stable job that befits his status is difficult.

“It’s been a struggle of course, but we’ll always hope for the best. As we all carry Syria in our hearts, we maintain our gratitude to the country that has provided us with a warm adopted home.”

* Naser Al Wasmi


snailRuba Musleh started a business here to make life better for herself and her family. Anna Nielsen for The National

Memories of a decent life … and a desire for stability

Name: Ruba Mousleh

Age: 33

From: Harasta

Profession: Currently an employee of Nokia in Dubai where she moved in 2012 after the company closed its office in Syria because of the rising instability. She now lives in the UAE with her brother and family.

“There were bombs going off in the area and access to my house was impossible when things started getting bad.

“Today, almost five years after the conflict erupted, no one is allowed to go to Harasta. We don’t even know what state our house is in.

“There was a lot of fighting between the Assad regime and the Free Syria Army. The situation was bad. There were bombings and fighting but people got used to it.

“I was lucky that I didn’t lose a family member. For those who lost their loved ones, they won’t ever be able to get used to it. I decided to leave because there’s no house to go back to. Our safety wasn’t guaranteed and I was given an opportunity to improve my life and my family’s.

“When I think about going back … I know that living there is extremely difficult. To find a job that can sustain you is close to impossible. Getting food, -water, and having a basic life are extremely difficult.

“Here it’s safe and we’re grateful, but it’s been difficult. I’ve tried to improve my life. I work and I’ve tried to get my family here. I was successful but I faced many complications. Also, I started a business, called Fruit Monsters, to try to make life better for my family and I.

“But my business is on its last legs and getting my parents to stay here is proving to be more difficult each month. We need to find a stable situation that can give us a feeling of permanent safety, not just a temporary solution.

“Life is difficult here. I pursued my master’s degree at Knowledge Village and it’s been two years since I tried to start a business. But the visa situation is difficult.

“Our life in Syria was very decent before the war. My parents were teachers and my brother a businessman. I had a job in an international company and we had our lives full of friends, social events, volunteering at NGOs, and it was safe.

“I don’t know how it is now. I don’t know if I can go back and deal with the level of danger, the corruption, the standard of living, which are definitely more difficult than when we left.

“When I think about going back, I don’t know what to do. I just want stability and safety for my family. I am beginning to lose hope.”

* Naser Al Wasmi


snailF. Saad has been taking photos free in hopes of finding work. Vidhyaa for The National

Hardship of life through the lens

Name: F. Saad

Age: 42

From: Damascus

Profession: She was a photographer who ran her own studio. She is now jobless

Lives: In Abu Dhabi with her husband and daughter. Her two older children are students in Germany.

“My country has been destroyed. Sometimes we think that even if the war were to stop now, it would take 20 years for Syria to be a country that anyone can live in.

“After the war you need years of construction and to heal the psychology of people who saw the bombings, the blood, the deaths.

“It’s not only about the bombings, the gangs or the arms. No, there is something deeper that has affected the people and children who were brought up seeing that during the past six years.

“My father, stepmother, sister and family are in Syria. I have a sister and brothers here in the UAE. So half my family is there and half here.

“We have an apartment in Syria with three bedrooms and a very big yard. I lived in an area that is now under government control.

“Three years ago, gangs entered the town and destroyed my photo studio and bombed some houses.

“We were there when the armed gangs entered. We stayed in shelters for two weeks with no food, nothing. And more than 100 people.

“I came here with my husband and three children. My daughter and son are in Germany for studies. I cannot go back to Syria and there is no way they will give us visas to go to Germany.

“We came to Abu Dhabi in 2014 in the middle of the school year and it was not easy to get my youngest daughter in school. She was only five, so she stayed at home until the next year.

“Life is peaceful and everybody respects each other.

“We live respectful lives here, but you need money for rent. School fees are a struggle, daily life is a struggle and that is because we don’t have jobs.

“We live with my sister-in-law and depend on her. Without her support, we couldn’t survive.

“She is the only one with a permanent job.

“In Syria we lived well because our jobs brought us good money. My husband was the owner and manager of a garage. He got residency here through a company, but it shut down last month. “I had my own studio and took photographs of events and weddings.

“Here, I have taken photographs for conferences but they have been mostly for free as I try to get connections for work.

“My husband and I are struggling to find any kind of jobs.

“If you are in my situation, you will not think about the future. You think about now.

“I’m feeling numb, the feeling you get when you completely stop being scared of anything.

“We are fragile inside. We are partially broken emotionally because we lost a lot of people we loved. We had to leave our country and have no jobs.”

* Ramola Talwar Badam

Mohammed’s Story

“I will certainly return to my country, whether it is rebuilt or not.”

After his father as taken by Isis, 14-year-old Mohammed became the man of the house. Now, he’s starting a new life in Germany but is keen to cling onto his past.

Filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen followed one family for three years as they struggled to survive in besieged Aleppo, eventually becoming refugees and fleeing to Germany. 

Watch part 1, Children on the Frontline on All 4: 

Watch part 2, Children on the Frontline: The Escape on All 4:

SYRIA – The long journey of a Syrian refugee (part 1/3): on the “Road of Death”, from Homs to Antakya*


The Redaction of The Maghreb and Orient Courier publishes the story of Nori, a 21-years-old Syrian refugee, in three parts (in its issues of September, October and December)*. Nori told our correspondent the story of a journey towards life. He was a citizen of Homs and after his family had fled the war and his brother had died, nothing kept him in his city. He decided to leave his city behind, and the violence, war and misery that went with it. Here is his story, how he fled the regime and arrived in Turkey, just to find himself in a similar uncertainty about his future as back home – although less lethal.



SYRIA - September 2015 - Amhed SAYED'“On the 16th of January 2014, my brother died and left me to live alone after my family had already fled to Jordan. Life became very hard for me in Homs. The position in the city became increasingly harder to maintain…

The bombardments increased after the leader of the biggest brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting in Homs received new weapons… The regime provoked the city in order to deplete the rebels’ weapons and to get a better morale amongst the troops so as to recruit further soldiers. Many massacres happened until an air strike killed the main leader of the FSA.

At that time, I decided to fill my loneliness by teaching in the poor schools, but the following massacres and murders caused by the rockets and the air strikes of the regime further demoralised me because I could not do anything to protect the children and even to save my life. The bombardments continued to destroy houses; the schools which I was teaching in and my house were destroyed… Six children died together… They were my students…

The only thing I could do was either to get out of the country or to die myself…


Rime Allaf from Vienna

Having spent the greater part of the last couple of days at Westbahnhof, and at the border at Nickelsdorf on Sunday, I hesitate when I claim emotional tiredness after having heard Syrian refugees’ stories about their long road to Vienna and seen the state they were in. What they have lived is incredible, and painful to hear. Every person and every family stays with you, and you find yourself wondering how much more they will endure, and how many more will follow in their path.

This week was better organized overall, and the many Austrian volunteers, donors and helpers who continue to show such solidarity and compassion are truly a shining example of the power of civil society, especially when coordinated with and facilitated by authorities. Metal barriers have been brought in to organize arrivals and departures, and Platform 1 has become the transit area. In the midst of the main arrival hall, a new makeshift area for children to rest, snack and play amid a pile of plush toys has been set up and the scenes are heartwarming.

The Caritas operation nerve center has begun to issue badges for volunteers, listing spoken languages. This enables paramedics and police to call for help easily, especially when the inevitable rush happens as long awaited trains to Munich are about to leave, and volunteers are asked to explain the process – and to calm rising tensions amongst exhausted people. There have been slight scuffles and complaints about people cutting the long lines and positioning themselves in front; police and volunteers always try to bring families with young children to the front, but young men travelling alone are faster and less patient, especially when their journey has begun way beyond Syria.

Arrivals to the station can also be chaotic; most refugees are now mostly being brought in by buses from the border (yesterday alone there were 50 buses and 2,500 refugees, and many had not arrived by the time I left), and they are often unsure about what will happen next to them. Cordons of police officers line the platform, and volunteers guide them to the area where food and drinks – and another long waiting period – await them. Yesterday, a lovely choir of some 20 adults moved along the platform singing inspirational songs to bemused refugees. And when Austrian President Heinz Fischer made an unannounced visit as well, thanking officials and volunteers and chatting with some refugees, I can say with great confidence that at least 99% of them had no idea who he was.

The badges also encouraged incoming refugees to ask for help. While most Syrians I met were hoping to start a new life in Germany, many are desperate to know the rules and logistics of asylum requests in different countries, asking a myriad of questions which we simply could not answer, to their frustration. It would be so helpful if relevant NGOs could establish a reliable information base, allowing refugees to understand legal positions across the EU. Refugees arriving here are welcomed with huge posters from the City of Vienna telling them “You are safe” in English and in Arabic, and volunteers continue to explain that they will be taken by train to Munich for free, should they wish to continue beyond Austria.

I happened to spend quite some time taking newly arrived people to the Ambulatorium and translating for the paramedics, whose professionalism and kindness with refugees is to be saluted. At Nickelsdorf on Sunday, we were lucky to have an extended conversation with the official spokesperson of the Austrian police force, who told us of many cases of exhaustion, of extended walking and falling (and worse) related bruising and aches, but also of dehydration and lack of nutrition (that day alone, for instance, 7 small children had to be hospitalized because of severe dehydration), and Austrian medics at the border have been taking care of the most urgent cases.

Vienna doctors were busy too. The situation in Macedonia and especially Hungary has gotten much worse over the last week, the effect evident on the faces of many. On Thursday, l was led to a small Syrian boy who had headaches and had been feverish for several days. I touched his forehead and went straight into the anxiety mode most mothers feel when a child is that hot. After l accompanied little Ahmad and his mother Nour to a doctor, she wept on my shoulder as she recounted their ordeal from Bab Al Hawa to Vienna – from Assad’s bombs to a camp in Turkey, to a terrifying sea crossing, to the long journey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and finally through Hungary. And that is when Nour cried.

If there is one common denominator to the conversations I have had with Syrians refugees this week, and I am sure this is the case with most volunteers, it is their shock at the surreal violent and degrading treatment they received in Hungary. Most thought we didn’t know, that this was not being reported in the media, and they were shaken to their core and bursting to tell those who would listen. I took a young woman limping on one crutch to the paramedics; she had been pushed to the ground in Hungary and seemed to be in great pain. Dima, however, categorically refused to let the Viennese doctor touch her swollen leg (to his shock), traumatized by the Hungarian nurses and doctors who handled roughly and rudely. After she shared some shocking details with me (including bruises on her arms after they woke her up by pinching her), I asked her father to convince her that she was in good hands here and that I would be by her side the whole time; he was in his late sixties and trembled with indignation as he gave me details of “what they did to us in Hungary” – a sentence I heard repeatedly. Dima looked for me half an hour later, still in pain and still traumatized, and told me her father was now crying. After holding back for so long, he was finally able to break down, in the safety of Vienna.

He was not the only grown man crying. On one side of the platform, a Syrian man tried unsuccessfully to control his tears as he told us how he was separated from his wife and children as they were led into buses. This refugee had no phone and could only wait, and save for a few comforting words, I could only think of our own impotence in the face of a catastrophe of this magnitude. How many Syrians will be looking for family members across the world in the years to come, just as people, Jews in particular, did for years after WWII?

While despair was palpable in many refugees, so was a definite sense of determination in most. Two young couples (from Aleppo and from Hama) chatted with me about their plans in Germany. One man was a mechanical engineer, the other a graphic designer, and as their pregnant wives sat by a pillar resting their aching backs, both told me they couldn’t wait to settle down, learn German and start anew. In a world where there are inevitably haves and have-nots, they were clearly of the former, turned into the latter when barrel bombs pushed them into exile with a only small bag to their name. Likewise, a grandmother from Deraa tearfully explained her family had no choice but to flee the barrel bombs (“al barameel”), worried that one of her disappeared sons would not be able to find them. Her young grandson listened to us chatting as he munched on some peanuts handed out by volunteers; I told him that he looked like a very bright boy who would learn German quickly and do very well in school; he nodded smilingly and, as any Syrian would, offered me some of his peanuts.

Each refugee is a story of hardship, of tragedy, of a desperate attempt for safety and dignity and of hope that the next generation would at least have a chance for a normal life. The one who will stay with me forever is Loujeyn, a little 8-year old Syrian girl from Damascus whose little bag sank into the sea during a storm, taking with it the few possessions she had chosen. She had been in the same clothes for weeks, and was given some old sneakers when her wet ones finally gave out. She was sneezing, was clearly exhausted, and incredibly sweet as she patiently waited to go on to Germany while her mother Salwa recounted their journey to me; still outraged about what was done to them Hungary, she told me it had been the first time since they left Damascus that she had nearly regretted leaving.

I felt an immediate attachment to them, perhaps because Loujeyn was nearly my own daughter’s age, and perhaps because Salwa was a fellow Damascene with a shared environment and roots, and I arranged to have some clean clothes and a Barbie doll brought to her later that day and to Loujeyn’s priceless smile. As I prepared to leave them, Salwa reached into her handbag and tried to give me the one “luxury” item still with her: a small bag of Arabic coffee, carefully wrapped in plastic. She was pained when I refused, insisting “please, it’s from Syria.” I told her it would make me much happier to know she will drink it when she has a roof over her head, safe from the Air Force Intelligence unit which had taken her older son and prompted the family to flee when they got him out, and that one day I would accept her hospitality in Germany.

As I left the station, my badge already removed, I suddenly noticed many more people than usual begging. A young woman who appeared to be Gypsy approached me; out of habit after talking to so many refugees in the last week, I asked her where she was from as I reached into my purse. She replied: Syria. I was stunned for a second and furiously told her: No you’re not! Ask for money but do not pretend to be a Syrian refugee.

I make no apology for being protective of the people who have shown so much dignity throughout their ordeal, and who have endured every calamity as most of the world watched in silence. That others should exploit their plight adds insult to injury and distorts the reality, and we have gone from having to explain where Syria is, to having our mostly useless passports stolen, our identities borrowed and our tragedy abused. And yet, even in their time of need, Syrians’ generosity – and generosity of spirit – remained legendary.

It took a flood of refugees and dozens of encounters with my Syrian compatriots in the most unexpected of circumstances, here where they saw real solidarity and compassion for the first time in weeks, but I am beginning to think that the cliche just may be right: Vienna really is the heart of Europe.

This extended Syrian family made it to Hungary: ‘What happens next?’

IMG_12871441828871 (1)

Ari Kiro, center, leads his family through the border into Roszke, Hungary. Kiro was elected to lead a group of 42 family members, friends and neighbors from Alepo that included boat, bus, train and walking. (Robert Samuels/TWP)
By Robert Samuels September 9
ROSZKE, HUNGARY — Down the rusty train tracks littered with crushed water bottles and candy bar wrappers, a mass of red and orange hats emerged from the distance. Ari Kiro, dressed in a sleeveless green T-shirt and white sweatpants, marched in the shallow grass beside them, a whistle in his mouth. He blew. They all stopped.

Kiro counted the children: 11. He counted the adults: 34. Forty-five in all — extended family and some new friends — marching together to seek asylum from the war in Syria.

Their past was another land, but they had no idea where their future would be. What they had known, back in Syria — in Aleppo, where most of them were from — was that colder weather and choppier waters were coming, and that the Hungarian prime minister was seeking to seal off this border with Serbia as early as Sept. 15. Not quite two weeks ago, they made a decision thousands in the Middle East are making, to run for the border, while it is still possible.

The family elected Kiro, a masseur, to lead the way. They picked up their new friends in Turkey.

“We thought it would be easier if we all worked together,” said Mohamed Ismael, 30, a pharmacist. “Macedonia was the hardest. Two days without food and water. We had to walk in the dark.”

Migrants’ desperate quest to cross into Europe
View Photos More than 332,000 people have reached Europe this year. see full article here

Hungary: Abysmal Conditions in Border Detention


(Budapest) – Migrants and asylum seekers are being held in abysmal conditions in the two Roszke migrant detention centers on the Serbian border, Human Rights Watch said today after obtaining footage from inside the camp and interviewing persons currently and formerly detained there. Hungarian police intercept asylum seekers and migrants entering via Serbia and detain them for days for registration and processing in conditions that fall short of Hungary’s international obligations.

Asylum seekers behind a metal fence in the ‘Hangar 1’ detention center, in Röszke, Hungary.

Asylum seekers behind a metal fence in the ‘Hangar 1’ detention center, in Röszke, Hungary.

 © 2015 Private/Courtesy of Human Rights Watch

“The detainees at Roszke are held in filthy, overcrowded conditions, hungry, and lacking medical care,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch. “The Hungarian authorities have an obligation to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are held in humane conditions and that their rights are respected.”

Hungarian authorities should take urgent action to improve conditions in and around the Roszke detention centers and make sure that people have access to adequate food and water, shelter and medical care, Human Rights Watch said.

Although, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, was recently granted access to Roszke, Hungarian authorities have not given permission to journalists or human rights organizations to visit the two police-run detention centers at the Roszke border between Serbia and Hungary, known as Hangar 1 and Hangar 2. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) has access under a long-standing tripartite border monitoring agreement between HHC, UNHCR and the Hungarian police. The agreement, however, only allows HHC access maximum once a month to police run centers on the border and limits what the organization can publicly say.

The detainees at Roszke are held in filthy, overcrowded conditions, hungry, and lacking medical care. The Hungarian authorities have an obligation to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are held in humane conditions and that their rights are respected. 

Peter Bouckaert

Emergencies Director

Human Rights Watch had made a formal request to visit Roszke collection center on August 31, which was rejected by the National Police in Hungary on September 2, citing “interference with police procedures.” Public access is allowed to the “collection ground” – an outdoor area approximately 500 meters from the border where police gather asylum seekers and migrants before transporting them to the Roszke centers. Human Rights Watch was able to obtain footage from Hangar 1 and interviewed 24 asylum seekers from various countries of origin including Syria and Afghanistan currently or formerly detained at the centers.

Inside Hangar 1 and Hangar 2, detainees are kept in small clusters of tents in open air pens created by metal fences, often in overcrowded conditions with insufficient bedding and space for the numbers of persons detained in the pens. Interviews with people held there established that they are given little or no information about the legal rules and safeguards governing their detention and administrative procedures followed by the Hungarian authorities. No interpreters are on permanent stand-by at the facilities, which contributes to the serious communication problems and resulting anxiety and frustration among the migrants and asylum seekers held there.

Many of those interviewed appear to have been held beyond the 36 hour limit allowed by Hungarian law for detention for police registration purposes at the border, and said they had virtually no access to medical care in detention. All of those interviewed said they received barely any edible food, and were not informed whether the food was halal – that is, suitable for Muslims to eat. Drinking water in the camps is in short supply, and many said they had resorted to drinking the unclean water provided for washing.

People described instances in which detainees experienced heart attacks, insulin shock or seizures, and that newborns with serious fevers and vomiting received no medical assistance.



Interactive Photo Feature: Thousands of asylum-seekers, including many from war-torn Syria, arrive daily in Hungary, seeking a path to Germany and other Western European countries. Hungary has detained and at times refused to allow people to continue onwards to Western Europe, citing an EU regulation. As a result, thousands have been stranded at Budapest’s Keleti train station. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed scores. Here are their stories. >>

“I begged them for milk for the baby and they just told me to leave,” said a man held with his wife and baby in Roszke. “We needed clean water for the baby and the other children [of other families] but police said to use the dirty water.”

The conditions at the Roszke facilities indicate that the Hungarian authorities, including the border police, lack the capacity to detain, house, and feed the growing numbers of asylum seekers and migrants in a humane manner, Human Rights Watch said. Without greater international assistance to ensure that Hungary meets basic minimum detention practices, in line with its EU obligations, migrants and asylum seekers in Hungary are likely to continue to be held at the border in dismal conditions.Hungary is facing an influx of migrants and asylum seekers, with nearly 150,000 arrivals since the beginning of 2015 and up to 3,000 migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Hungarian border with Serbia every day in the past week. The number of asylum applications doubled in 2014, putting Hungary second – behind Sweden – for asylum applications per capita among EU countries. But the large numbers do not absolve Hungary of its legal responsibilities, including under the EU reception directive, to treat asylum seekers humanely, including where necessary by requesting assistance from international agencies or the EU, Human Rights Watch said.

Since the beginning of the year, the Hungarian government has engaged in an anti-immigrant campaign including a so-called national consultation, which included a questionnaire to eight million of its citizens that equated immigration with terrorism. In June, the government opened a nationwide billboard campaign with messages in Hungarian saying, “If you come to Hungary, you shouldn’t take the jobs of Hungarians,” and “If you come to Hungary, you must respect our culture.” Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently claimed he was defending “Europe’s Christian culture” from Muslims to justify his policies toward migrants and asylum seekers.

The Hungarian authorities should urgently request assistance from the United Nations and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations to better meet the needs of detained migrants and asylum seekers, and streamline the procedures they use to register asylum seekers and migrants to shorten their time in border detention, Human Rights Watch said. Facilities should be set up to meet international standards, and adequate interpreters and skilled medical personnel should promptly be deployed to the centers.

“The situation for migrants and asylum seekers in Hungary is inhumane and untenable,” Bouckaert said. “The Hungarian government, with help from fellow EU governments and the United Nations, should take concerted action to ensure it can meet its obligations to protect people and treat them humanely.”

Lack of Medical Care
The mothers of two newborn babies at the camp, both less than one month old, said that the infants had high fevers and were vomiting, but had received no medical assistance.

A young woman went into seizures after standing in the hot sun for hours in a metal pen filled with detained asylum seekers at the camp, according to witnesses and video obtained by Human Rights Watch.

A Syrian woman who gave birth at Keleti train station in Budapest two days after her release from detention, told Human Rights Watch of appalling conditions at the Debrecen asylum detention center, close to the Romanian border. She said she was kept there for three days separated from her husband in a dirty barred cell with 50 other women and children and without adequate food. Human Rights Watch did not interview others held at Debrecen and has not tried to gain access to the center.

The wife of a 57-year old man who had a heart attack at a detention facility said that he was treated with cardiopulmonary resuscitation and defibrillators to revive him and then rushed to the hospital. But three days later, she had not been told whether he had survived.

Filthy Conditions
Elian Ahmed and her husband, Rawan Ati, both 23, spent a total of five days in at least two centers on the Hungarian border with their newborn baby. Rawan Ati described the conditions at Roszke:

When we crossed into Hungary the police sent us to a camp that was very dirty, like a place for animals. It was a closed camp and the conditions were horrible. When people tried to escape they were brought back. We slept for two days outside on towels. Nobody made special arrangements for the baby, they gave us no milk and they treated us very badly. They talked to us rudely, and they treated us very inhumanely, like we were slaves.

I begged them for milk for the baby and they just told me to leave [leave the police officer alone] in a very rude way. I tried to reason with them, saying I have a family that needs help and the policeman that he too has a family so what is the problem. We felt like prisoners and the food was so bad that we couldn’t eat it. The water was dirty and barely drinkable. We needed clean water for the baby and the other children [of other families] but police said to use the dirty water.

The family spent one night locked inside a police detainee transfer vehicle with a large group:

They told us to go to sleep at midnight and at 2 a.m. they would wake us up and move us to another camp with buses. Those five days we were not allowed to wash. Luckily we had some diapers left for the baby that we brought from Turkey. When we were taken to be fingerprinted, they locked us into a police transfer vehicle for prisoners with bars on the windows and they kept us there all night. There were about 100 people inside. Finally one woman got angry and demanded water. They gave us only one bottle of water. We spent the whole night locked into vehicle with our baby. It smelled terrible and we were all very dirty. There were about 10 children among us.

Another Syrian, Remis Shekal, 30, travelling with six children to reach her husband in Norway, said they were detained at two centers, including Roszke, for a total of four days. She described similarly bad conditions in Roszke saying that the place is “only fit for animals” and that no one explained what would happen to them or whether the food was halal. When the family refused to be fingerprinted out of fear that they would have to remain in Hungary under the Dublin regulation, which requires most asylum seekers to remain in the first EU country they entered, the police would wake them up during the night as a punishment, demanding that they go for fingerprinting.



In a second camp, which she couldn’t name, she said they were locked in a room with about 70 people and only five beds. They tried to accommodate the children among them by putting camping mattresses on the floor. After two days of detention, they were told that following fingerprinting and photographing they were free to go and were put on a train to Budapest. After agreeing to be fingerprinted and photographed they were released and went on their own accord to Budapest.On three separate visits to the Serbian side of the Serbian-Hungary border, Human Rights Watch found dozens, and at times hundreds, of persons too afraid to cross into Hungary because of the detention conditions and fingerprinting practices of the Hungarian government, fearing that they would be forced to remain in a hostile Hungary. Two families of 15, including a total of six children, told Human Rights Watch that they were sheltering on the Serbian side of the border because they were too afraid to cross the border from Serbia because of camp conditions and concerns about being forcibly fingerprinted in Hungary. They had spent three days camping out in a fruit orchard at the border. Almost all the Syrian families interviewed described their time in Roszke camp as their worst experience since arriving in Europe, and second only to the dangers of crossing by boat from Turkey to Greece.

Meanwhile, thousands of asylum seekers and migrants remain stuck at two train stations in Budapest, sleeping out in the open on the pavement without any visible humanitarian assistance from the Hungarian government. Asylum seekers and migrants normally arrive in one station, Nyugati, and subsequently make their way to Keleti train station, which has destinations to Western Europe. The Hungarian government in the first week of September prevented asylum seekers and migrants from boarding trains to Western Europe, the preferred destination for most, citing its obligations under EU regulations. It has since stopped this practice.


Refugees in Hungary complain about poor conditions

The refugees welcome in Vienna

Today was an emotionally charged day for many Syrians and friends of Syrians in Vienna. When we heard that trains were running from Nickelsdorf (on the border with Hungary) to Vienna, those of us who could went straight to Westbahnhof to help welcome mostly Syrian refugees and to assist them in this stage of their epic journey. It was crowded, it was chaotic at times and it was overwhelming.

As they came off the trains, exhausted refugees would be met by dozens of volunteers offering drinks, food, medical help, and general assistance. We wore signs on our chest listing the languages we spoke, and we directed them as best as we could. For all the goodwill of all involved, it was difficult to know which trains would be the next to leave, and where to direct those continuing to Germany (the vast majority).

Platform 1 was entirely occupied by trolleys overflowing with food, drinks and hygiene items, with blankets, with clothes. Medical staff was on standby in a dedicated area clearly marked for all to see, in Arabic as well. On another side, some volunteers offered sim cards while others gathered cash donations for those who were continuing their journey beyond Munich. All travellers to Munich travelled for free, courtesy of the Austrian National Railways. Inside the arrival hall, multiple outlets were available for people to charge their phones, and signs in Arabic explained that free WiFi was available.

Amidst all the chaos was great dignity. The dignity of the refugees, who smiled when we said “alhamdella alsalameh” and who often politely refused to accept offered food, merely asking to be directed to the trains to Munich. The dignity of the children, who when handed chocolate bars and urged to take another would say no thank you, one is enough. The dignity of the volunteers, who seemed to instinctively know when to circulate, when to initiate contact, and when to stand on the side with trays of warm drinks, small things to eat and even cigarettes.

The generosity of the Austrian people and of the Austrian authorities was incredible; Caritas couldn’t accept more donations of clothes, shoes and toys for today. The kindness and calm shown by the police force was stunning; at one point, as a departure to Munich was announced, the platform became so crowded that a couple of employees were pushed and fell (on their feet) on the tracks. Yet, police remained calm and managed to restore order without force or roughness.

It was cold, windy and rainy in Vienna today, but to those fleeing war, misery and genocide, and especially after the stupefyingly harsh treatment they received from Hungarian authorities, Mother Nature was no match for the warmth of Austria’s welcome.

Tomorrow, Nickelsdorf.

Photo de Rime Allaf.
Photo de Rime Allaf.
Photo de Rime Allaf.

Editorial: Refugee crisis grows

The news out of Europe grows ever more horrifying.

This week a refrigerated truck filled with the bodies of 71 migrants who likely suffocated en route was found abandoned on an Austrian highway.

Yesterday two boats trying to make it to European shores capsized off the coast of Libya — at least 200 were believed missing and presumed dead.

Hey, that’s Europe’s problem, right? We here in fortress America have our own issues to deal with — and to hear Donald Trump tell it they would be largely settled by building higher fences and amending the Constitution to end birthright citizenship.

Just pull up the drawbridge and good luck to the “Old World” in dealing with the “wretched refuse” who end up — alive or dead — on their shores.

And yet here’s one factoid from that most recent horror in Austria to contemplate: Some of the dead carried Syrian travel documents. They were fleeing the violence and the turmoil, which our own nation and the international community have done nothing to curtail — not after President Obama’s “red line,” not after the proof of sarin gas attacks, not after pleas by rebels for something more lethal than meals-ready-to-eat.

The dead in that truck included eight women and four children, the youngest a girl estimated between age 1 and 2, the boys ages 8 to 10. These weren’t simply economic refugees, looking for a better life in Europe. These were families looking for any life that could be lived without fear of violence.

Imagine the level of desperation it takes to gather the family, make the trip to Turkey, then Greece, through Macedonia, Serbia through Hungary — where thousands have been crossing the border daily (often over or under razor wire fences) — and from there into other countries in the European Union.

Earlier in the week 18 Syrians were found in an overturned truck on a highway in Hungary. They, at least, survived.

European governments are arresting the human traffickers who prey off the fear and the misery of these refugees. But they cannot stop this tide. Only regime change in Syria can do that — but our own nation and the world seem to have given up on that.


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