If it was ever possible to speak of European ‘unity’ on the issue of dealing with migrants and refugees, that time is surely over. Across the continent, the European nations appear to be hardening their stance. In this article, Ryan Swan draws upon the many interviews he has conducted with migrants to illuminate how vulnerable people are experiencing Europe’s increasingly cold shoulder. 

The story of Europe being a safe haven for asylum seekers and refugees from the Arab World will be the defining characteristic of this time. Naturally, as more people arrive on the continent, open discussion continues on how to effectively integrate new arrivals, while managing the economic and cultural issues pertaining to the process of resettlement. However, the blind spot of the debate here is the migrant struggle against the bureaucracy and security apparatus in European states. Asylum seekers, particularly those who come from routes not sanctioned by the European Union (EU), must endure the threat of detention or deportation looming over them.

As I wrote in last month’s CABLE, the EU has already adopted an increasingly hostile stance in policing the borders and regions beyond them. This shift in policy has meant that in practice, people fleeing conflict and war are being treated as criminals as soon as they set foot within European borders. In a series of interviews, I spoke to Mohammad Ibrahim about the journey he made from Syria to Switzerland, between the winter of 2012, and the spring of 2016. His story is dispiriting, revealing both the violence that those fleeing war in Syria are subjected to at European borders, and the punitive asylum system they face if they hope to remain in Europe.

This shift in policy has meant that in practice, people fleeing conflict and war are being treated as criminals as soon as they set foot within European borders.

My conversation with Mohammad began with him reflecting on why he decided to leave his home in Damascus, while still a student. He recalls the horrors of the war, endless days of intense fighting which eventually convinced him that his situation had become unlivable. “There is a famous picture of Yarmouk camp [south of Damascus]”, he told me. “If you’ve seen it, of a huge group of people and destroyed buildings,” he begins, “That is the day Jabhat al-Nusra [Islamist forces now merged with other groups to create Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham] took control of the camp, and that was the day we left.”

Even prior to that, the situation was dangerous. Mohammad’s home was situated between the political office of Hamas and the PFLP-GC office (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, a Palestinian political party turned militia for the Assad regime), the main office in Damascus (in Yarmouk). Every night, the silence was broken by fighting between the two: “For nearly three months”, he recalls, “we were unable to sleep at night for the noise”.

Born to a Palestinian refugee family – who were expelled from Palestine in 1948, and now often referred to as ‘Palestinian Syrians’ – in Yarmouk camp, Mohammad has a Palestinian passport which means that travel even into neighbouring countries is greatly restricted. His family are not recognised as refugees and do not have the right to enter Palestinian territories. Lebanon forbids those possessing this passport from crossing its borders.

Seeing no choice, however, Mohammad crossed the border into Lebanon with his mother, despite the risk and the deteriorating situation for refugees there. He sought any way possible out of Lebanon. Having been denied asylum in Arab states due to his Palestinian passport, he requested asylum in places as far as Chile and Thailand, as well as European states such as Serbia and Greece. All refused him. Finally, the Turkish embassy confirmed that they do not permit Palestinian asylum requests, but can grant visit visas and work visas. Mohammad successfully applied for, and obtained, the former.


From Beirut, Mohammad flew to Istanbul and met a friend who had also recently fled Syria. Together, they made their way to Edrine, a city near the Bulgarian border, with the aim of crossing the European frontier. Using the ‘Navigator’ application on his phone, they started off at 2 o’clock one afternoon, passing through a forest which, Mohammad recalls, slowed their progress greatly: “It was so thick with thorns, it was like a wall.”

At around 3 o’clock in the morning they stopped, having seen a red light of a border post. They passed by carefully and made for a village but having arrived there, they were spotted and police came quickly to arrest them. The response by the border guards was brutal, says Mohammad; “The police shone bright projector lights at us, set dogs on us, and fired live ammunition into the air to scare us. The worst border for me was the Turkish-Bulgarian border.”

Once captured, Mohammad was taken to a detention centre near the border, searched, and interrogated. He was then locked up for a week, the duration of his confinement a consequence of his travelling status. “If you are part of a family, you stay for a day,” he explained, “but if you are a single person you have to stay for a week.”

Syrian refugees protest at Budapest Keleti railway station, Budapest, Hungary, September 2015. Image: Mstyslav Chernov [CC BY-SA 4.0]

This practice is not unique in any way to Bulgaria. The detention of persons seeking protection is now a growing trend in the European Union. Even states of comparatively high reputation in asylum matters – such as Germany and Sweden – are increasing their use of this practice.

In the prison shared with eleven others, Mohammad’s fingerprints were taken electronically ­– not for asylum registration but for passing the border. Once the week had elapsed, the guards read out the names of those who were to leave. Mohammad wasn’t included, got annoyed, and argued that he had the right to go also. A guard grabbed him, beat him and threw him in a bathroom. After this, he was taken away.

The detention of persons seeking protection is now a growing trend in the European Union. Even states of comparatively high reputation in asylum matters – such as Germany and Sweden – are increasing their use of this practice.

Packed into a police vehicle with eleven others, he was taken to an asylum centre almost seven hours away in another city. They arrived at a large field where there were a lot of refugees and lots of tents, with a small building for the asylum processing procedure. In this three-floor building, the 12 detainees were taken into a corridor, shown a room each, and were told to enter upon the sound of a buzzer. The memory prompts a wry comment from Mohammad: “I left prison to return to prison”.

Mohammad then learned that if he were to apply for asylum in Bulgaria, he would have to live in a detention camp for between six months and a year. He thus attempted to cross the border into Serbia in order to get to Germany. But he was caught at the Serbian border and warned that since he had entered Bulgaria ‘illegally’, he’d go to jail for two years if he were caught a second time. But Mohammad remained undeterred. He made it into Serbia in his second attempt (“the route is very easy”), then on to Hungary (“even easier”), but was later arrested and imprisoned for four days. From the city of Gyor in Hungary, he finally made his way into Germany in April of 2013 – this, he says, was the easiest border to cross – where he then applied for asylum in Berlin. His application was accepted.


Mohammad’s experience – and his is by no means unusual – shows that Europe’s external borders are far more dangerous than its internal ones. However, despite the argument that this is a novel development due to the refugee crisis, this actually has its roots in the Schengen Agreement starting in 1985. The relaxing of internal borders prompted by Schengen engendered the gradual militarising of external borders.

Only three months after submitting his application, Mohammad’s lawyer told him that he’d have to return to Bulgaria because his fingerprints showed the authorities that Bulgaria was his ‘first country of entry’. Nonetheless, he had seven days to appeal and try to stop the deportation. On the basis of a report from a psychologist saying that he should not be sent back to Bulgaria for health reasons, Mohammad was saved from deportation. But this was his only guarantee of remaining in Germany.

The relaxing of internal borders prompted by Schengen engendered the gradual militarising of external borders.

The threat returned after a year-and-a-half, at the start of his residency status process. At the time, Mohammad was staying in a camp and using a church as an official address. While he was out working one day, a friend called him to say that the police had come to the camp looking for him. Fleeing the camp, he remained in hiding for six months, while still having a registered address at the church. At this time, his lawyer told him that a trial was set for him in Berlin, which he duly attended. At the court, Mohammad was given no briefing: “They didn’t talk about any rights; I only had a paper for deportation”, he recalls. The judge had Mohammad’s file from Bulgaria and ruled that he should be deported back to Bulgaria where he would be imprisoned for two years.

This in practice is The Dublin System or Regulation. It stipulates that EU states can remove an asylum seeker from their country to the first country of entry: in Mohammad’s case, this was Bulgaria. The judgement on Mohammad assumed that Bulgaria is considered a ‘safe’ country to which people can be returned. Interestingly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently condemned this regulation. One wonders how aware she is of its implementation in her own country.

Germany undoubtedly has the infrastructure to deal with its new arrivals. And Mohammad did work hard to try to integrate: he lived in a refugee camp in Berlin; he worked; he learned German. Mohammad takes the view that even if you fit the criteria of the ‘good migrant’, you cannot remain safe from the EU security apparatus. And despite your best efforts, you’ll still be treated as part of the ‘migrant crisis’ and will thus be regarded as a threat to be managed.

“There was a really strong coordination between Germany and Bulgaria regarding refugees”, Mohammad recalls. The coordination between the two countries to deport him at a crucial point in his process revealed to him the unified opposition to people taking irregular routes into Europe. And after all his travails, Mohammad was worn-out: “I thought, fuck Berlin, fuck Germany’. He decided he had to move on, for his own safety.

By this time, Mohammad had met a Swiss woman in Germany and they planned to get married. Leaving Germany in April 2016, his partner smuggled him across the border into Switzerland where he now lives peacefully with her. She is now his wife. When asked what he concludes from his experiences, Mohammad’s reply is simple: “The north of Europe does not want refugees”.

Ryan Swan is a freelance translator and writer. His main interests are asylum and refugee studies, works by Syrian revolutionary thinkers, and political Islam. He is on Twitter at: @Ryan0Swan

Feature image: A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany. Hungary, Central Europe, 6 September 2015. Image: Mstyslav Chernov [CC BY-SA 4.0]