After an arduous journey filled with many obstacles, including traversing the Mediterranean Sea and crossing chain-linked border fences, Syrian refugee Mahmoud Mardini chose to return to Turkey illegally. He gave up residency in Germany, along with its associated benefits, after failing to achieve his dream of completing his university education.
Mahmoud’s case is similar to a large number of Syrian refugees preferring to leave Germany, the proverbial land of promise for Syrians fleeing war, in an illegal reverse migration that has many causes: overcrowded refugee centers, an infuriating bureaucracy, social isolation, and a lack of employment opportunities.
Mahmoud, age 20, recalled the reasons behind his exodus despite securing a three-year residency in Germany, saying, “I came out of Syria hoping to continue my studies after earning my baccalaureate with honors, but I was surprised by the systematic hurdles imposed by the authorities there. No one would recognize my degree and over time my dream of getting accepted into a university began to fade.”
“After living in the refugee camp for a long period, the living conditions also greatly affected my psyche. Processing refugees’ files in this country takes an excessive amount of time; months pass as you live the same routine day in and day out. I thought of committing suicide many times. It was hard to watch my life slip away waiting for the unknown,” he added. Mahmoud does not regret his decision to leave. Six months after arriving in Turkey, he was granted an academic scholarship with the engineering department in Aydin University in Istanbul.
Germany-based Mehyar Badra manages a social networking group on WhatsApp, “Reverse Migration Garages,” where Syrian refugees in Germany coordinate monthly trips back to Turkey. According to Badra, he has noticed a marked increase in reverse migration cases with each passing month. Refugees who receive official residence often pass through the Athens airport on their way to the Turkish border, later cutting through barbed wire to enter Turkey illegally.
Denying family reunification
The reasons for the return of these refugees are many, particularly with regard to the issue of reunification. This is the area of greatest concern to the displaced, says Germany-based lawyer Arwa al-Soussi. As thousands of Syrian refugees arrived in the country, many of them received secondary residency (a one year residency that can then be renewed) on the condition that they would not request the reunification of their families before March 2018.
Al-Soussi noted how these refugees were shocked following the recent agreement between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German political parties, that postponed family reunification to July 2018, while adding a 1,000 person limit on entries per month. Many Syrians have waited over two years to reunite with their families, but after this decision it appears they will have to wait even longer. The German Bild newspaper reported that approximately 390,000 Syrian refugees who received secondary residency have requested to reunite with their families. Given these statistics, it could take many long months before German authorities even consider their cases.
“My wife lives with my little boy in a village in Idlib. I arrived in Germany two years ago in the hope of improving our situation and fleeing the war. I did not want to risk my child on such a dangerous journey, but I have no choice but to reunite with them,” says Ahmad al-Basha, one of those refugees patiently waiting to see their families again. “I think about them every day and worry about what will happen to them. I’m always uncomfortable here and I would like to be with them.”
Ahmad described how he and a group of friends arrived in Germany on the same date, but were assigned to live in different states. Despite the similar circumstances, some of his friends received their three-year residency and brought their families over shortly afterwards, while he was granted “secondary protection” which prevents his reunification until after March 2018. “Even with the ongoing war, I will have no choice but to return to Syria if I cannot bring my family to this country soon,” he said.
Yassir arrived in Germany from Syria in mid-2015. The 35-year-old quickly realized that he would not find work and tranquility, the very reasons for which he had risked his life. Despite having a teaching license in Syria, he failed to find suitable work to occupy his time.
“As soon as I arrived, I quickly learned to speak German and relentlessly searched for work, but in vain; temp agencies, restaurants, cafes, workshops…they all shut their doors in my face,” he said. After more than two years, Yassir recalls his life on the margins of society with nothing to do. “Despair, loneliness, and uncertainty make up our daily lives. Many have chosen drugs as their escape.”
In addition to these myriad challenges, German attitudes towards the refugees also contribute to reverse migration—especially as Islamophobia takes hold. According to the young Syrian, increased harassment has played a particularly negative role on the morale of refugees who watch as the security they sought in Germany slips away.
The integration law, adopted in mid-2016, also increases the sense of alienation for refugees, forcing them to reside in states as assigned by the German government, without considering families who became separated because of the new law.
A few days ago, ayoung Syrian refugee, Nadim Adla, died in Germany after suffering a sudden heart attack at the age of 40. His friends say it was the result of the psychological stress due to the dismal social life he had been living for more than a year.
According to sociologist Yousef Yazen, a large number of Syrian refugees residing in Germany suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for which they have not been properly treated. Rather, these cases have increased as a result of loneliness, lack of social connections, and the culture shock associated with being thrown into foreign customs and traditions.
Increased suicides among the refugee youth as a result of their frustration and failure to build new social ties, and inability to care for themselves, seems to confirm Yazen’s assessment.
A noticeable rift has emerged within families due to the differences between Syrian and European culture; particularly around gender and family roles. This gap is reflected in many Syrian families who arrived in Germany and whose family units fell apart. Women have rebelled against their husbands (particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement) and children have rebelled against their parents, causing strife within refugee families and prompting some to consider returning to Syria.
It is worth noting that Syrian refugees have varying experiences with integration in Germany, depending on their circumstances. Some have successfully found a place in their respective communities relatively quickly and achieved impressive results. Nonetheless, many face significant challenges, which has prompted some to seriously consider leaving behind the dreams for which they risked their lives.
Hosam al-Jablawi is a Syrian citizen journalist.