As Syria Implodes, Europe Braces for a Spiraling Refugee Crisis

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Sergi Camara / Prodein

A group of sub-Saharan Africans sit on the slopes of Gurugu Mountain in northern Morocco in August, looking towards Melilla, a tiny patch of Spanish territory. Hundreds of migrants live rough on the mountain waiting for the opportunity to make another run at a heavily-fortified fence which marks one of the few land borders between Africa and Europe.

The bird shot gave Chinois his scars. Perched on a Moroccan mountain lit only by the full moon and orange glow from a tiny corner of Europe below, he pulls up a trouser leg to show the holes pockmarking his knee. The metal pellets he managed to dig out are kept in a grubby handkerchief in his pocket. The others remain buried in the young Cameroonian’s flesh, hobbling his walk.

Coils of razor wire caused the badly-healed gash on Rodrigue’s thigh. It is surprising he does not have more: in the three years he has lived on the mountain, he has faced the towering fences, razor wire, pepper spray and pellet guns 13 times in an attempt to get into Melilla, a patch of Spanish territory on the northern Moroccan coast. And 13 times he has failed, picked up by Moroccan police and dumped at the Algerian border, only to trudge back to the slopes of Gurugu and wait for the opportunity to make another dash over one of the few land borders between Africa and Europe. “I will keep trying until I get to Europe,” says the 32-year-old, who is also from Cameroon.

He is one of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers massing at the gates of Europe. Many are on an illegal quest to breach a border for economic reasons. But joining them are increasing numbers of Syrians, Egyptians, Tunisians and Malians fleeing turmoil at home after the optimism of the Arab Spring turned into a reality of unrest and repression.

(PHOTOS: The Plight of Syrian Refugees Magnified Outside Zaatari)

In the past month, at least 7,500 migrants and asylum-seekers have arrived in southern Italy and Malta, taking the total so far this year to 20,000 – well above the 10,000 who arrived in the whole of 2012. Officials from FRONTEX, the European Union‘s border agency, say numbers in the past few weeks are creeping back to the levels seen at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Most are arriving in the poorer nations on the periphery of the EU, which are ill-equipped to deal with the cost and burden of housing the migrants as they grapple with their own economic crisis. Migrants arriving in Greece, which is experiencing the harshest austerity programme on the continent, have been crammed into detention centers labelled “inhumane” by medical charities.

Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU, has reported 3,000 people illegally crossing its borders so far this year, up from 2,000 in the whole of 2012. The nation’s interior minister, Tsvetlin Yovchev, told Bloomberg on Tuesday that if the crisis in Syria escalates, that number could reach between 6,000 and 10,000 by the end of this year. “This exceeds our potential,” he said.

This is creating a dilemma for Europe: do countries share the burden and accept more refugees? Or do they simply build border fences even higher, wary of the political realities in EU member states where terms like “immigrants” and “asylum-seekers” are not met with much sympathy by voters?

The consequences of the latter approach are more deaths and injuries as people seeking a better life take even higher risks to try and find it. As countries increase security at their land borders, says Human Rights Watch researcher Judith Sunderland, “you have people going to the sea to try and avoid those borders, and it’s just more dangerous.”

On Aug. 10, the bodies of six dead migrants washed up on the beach near the Sicilian town of Catania after an an 18-metre boat carrying more than a hundred migrants ran aground. Last week, a woman gave birth at sea in a boat crammed with 300 mostly Syrian refugees. Malta last month refused to let a boat carrying 102 migrants dock, despite reports that a five-month-old baby and four pregnant women were on board. Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has demanded more help from the EU, accusing the bloc of being “quick in rescuing banks but too slow in rescuing people.”

(MORE: A Coalition of the Willing: Europe’s Role in Possible Syrian Intervention)

Michele Cercone, spokesman for the EU home affairs commissioner, says the bloc is doing everything within its powers to help, considering all requests for emergency funds and appealing to other European nations to accept more refugees. But, he adds: “This can only be done on a voluntary basis… the appetite for re-location at this stage is not high.”

The Swedish government announced on Wednesday that they would grant permanent residency to any Syrian refugees in the country. But for the majority of new Syrian arrivals in Europe still waiting for their asylum applications to be processed in holding facilities in Italy, Malta, Greece, Spain and Bulgaria, that promise must seem very far away.

In the meantime, many European nations are simply reinforcing their borders – whatever the human cost. Greece has followed Spain’s example, building its own heavily-fortified fence along 10.5km of its border with Turkey and launching Operation Xenios Zeus, a security sweep which Human Rights Watch says has led to more abuses against migrants and asylum-seekers.

As security on both sides of the fence in Melilla has increased, life on Gurugu has become “hell”, says Rodrigue. Hundreds of men and women spend their days hiding among cacti as Moroccan police sweep the mountain, only emerging at night to beg for food in a nearby village. Those who are caught are beaten, loaded into trucks, and dumped at the Algerian border, Rodrigue says.

No one is denying EU nations the right to protect their borders, but activists question whether people deserve the levels of violence they face. The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres treated 1,100 migrants for injures sustained in Morocco or on the fence in 2012. The Moroccan and Spanish governments did not respond to requests for comment.

Those who do make it across find their way to the CETI, a holding center in Melilla. In the office of CETI’s director, Carlos Montero Diaz, the camp’s children laugh as they dart under his desk looking for the drawer filled with lollipops. But despite the smiles, the camp is under strain and operating at double its capacity. Diaz too wants more help from the EU, but he believes funds should also go towards raising the quality of life in the sub-Saharan nations people flee.

The fence, he says, simply cannot go much higher: “If people don’t have money in their countries, don’t have a future, the immigration situation will continue.”

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