Migrant crises: Perilous quest for safety

Syrian migrant Fadi Haddad and his wife and three daughters in their Frankfurt flat.
PHOTO: Marilyn Gerlach

This year has seen two migrant crises unfolding - one in South-east Asia, involving tens of thousands of mainly Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar's Rakhine state, and the other in Europe, which saw a record flow of nearly one million people, many of them from conflict-torn Syria. The Straits Times' Foreign Desk traces the treacherous journeys of two refugee families.

Close brush with death in Syrian's flight to Germany

FRANKFURT - Mr Fadi Haddad crawled under barbed wire in Syria's north-western village of Kessab and crossed a forest to reach Turkey, the start of a journey to the edge of despair in the hands of unscrupulous migrant smugglers.

Twice, he had a brush with death - once on a sinking boat and another time when a screwdriver-wielding refugee charged at him in a German transit camp.

"Even now, I think my life is in danger," says Mr Haddad, 39, from his flat, his mournful eyes staring from a gaunt, thinly bearded face as he reflects on his seven attempts by sea, land and air to reach Germany.

Germany expects one million refugees this year, putting pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to cut the numbers, partly by working with Turkey to improve the lives of some 2.2 million Syrian refugees there, and plug the migrant path to Europe. For Mr Haddad, crossing into Turkey in October 2012 was the easiest part of his journey.

Turkish border soldiers on patrol saw him from a distance but simply ignored him. He then took a 16-hour bus ride to Istanbul, Turkey's commercial hub. Europe was not his goal then.

In Istanbul, he worked as an "office boy" in a travel agency, delivering letters and cleaning the premises. He slept in the office corridor at first to save money. Mr Haddad said it was hard for him as he had a "luxurious life" in Syria, where he was a travel agency executive manager.

The hardship was compounded after he lost telephone contact with his wife and three daughters, then aged seven, five and two, who lived in a Damascus suburb ringed by Syrian troops. Mr Haddad, who was with the opposition, was captured twice by the government troops, but he escaped by bribing his captors. His family was later found safe and taken by car to Beirut, the capital of neighbouring Lebanon, from where they flew to Istanbul.

He began life anew with his family, moving out of his basement flat where toilet water seeped through the wall, and set up a travel agency.

But with barriers to integration into Turkish society and resentment towards Syrian refugees perceived as poaching jobs for low wages, Mr Haddad set his sights on Europe.

He went to Turkey's south-western port of Izmir, where migrant traffickers blatantly carried out their business in cafes, he said.

He spoke to six of them in an hour. In October 2014, he paid €1,100 (S$1,690) for a spot on a 4m by 2.5m inflatable boat with 39 Syrians. The Greek island of Chios, 27km by air from Cesme in Turkey, was their goal.

But the boat was lost at sea.

"We stayed in the sea for about 21/2 hours. I thought I would die."

Mr Haddad says masked men claiming to be Greek police then took them to a boat flying a Greek flag, transferred them to a rubber boat half the size of their dinghy and left them at sea near Turkey.

They were later rescued by Turkish police when the boat was sinking. Mr Haddad got his money back.

His second attempt cost €3,000 for a boat that landed him and three other Syrians in Chios in 20 minutes. He made his way to the Greek capital of Athens where, after speaking with nearly 30 traffickers, he opted for a €5,000 package to travel by plane to another part of Europe with a fake passport.

But after being caught twice at the airport and with money running out, he opted for the cheapest way - walking. For €2,000, he joined a guided trek which would take the group from Macedonia - through Serbia, Hungary and Austria - to Germany.

But they were nabbed by Macedonian police, who set Mr Haddad free after he paid a bribe.

He returned to Greece and tried to enter Germany by plane again, this time with a fake Greek passport, for €4,000. He landed in Frankfurt on Dec 30 last year.

Unlike in Turkey where he paid upfront, Greece-based smugglers get their money only after a migrant reaches the destination, through a money-transfer system in which a third party holds the funds until the migrant arrives safely. In all, Mr Haddad spent over €10,000 for his two successful attempts, including hotel and food.

But his journey almost ended in death in the crowded Giessen transit camp, 50km north of Frankfurt.

An Albanian attacked him with a screwdriver, either because Mr Haddad received refugee status ahead of others or because he told police about drug use in the camp.

"We struggled. I got hold of the screwdriver," he recalls, still shaken by the close call.

Mr Abdul Islam (above) and his wife Asimah with their son Shahid (not their real names) do not venture far from their home in Bangkok for fear of drawing the attention of the immigration authorities.

Muslim-Buddhist couple's path fraught with danger

BANGKOK - He was a Rohingya Muslim whose family ran a fleet of boats in Myanmar's Rakhine state. She was a Buddhist shopkeeper living in a village next to his.

In a region riven by ethnic and religious tensions, their union was not just rare but downright dangerous. Faced with persistent intimidation, they fled their homeland in 2010 on an arduous journey that eventually brought them to Thailand early this year.

Mr Abdul Islam was 19 years old when he met Ms Asimah, 28, in 2008. She had to travel twice a week to the nearby Buthidaung town to restock the groceries in her shop. The quiet, square-jawed young man waived the 1,000 kyat (S$1) boat fare each time because "we are neighbours".

One day - two years after they first met - Ms Asimah offered to buy Mr Abdul coffee. And word got around to their families and neighbours. Ms Asimah's neighbours were incensed. "They said, if we ever met again, they would take him to the police and beat him up," she told The Straits Times.

That was in 2010, before communal tensions in Rakhine state flared into outright violence that displaced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, whom the Myanmar government rejects as illegal "Bengali" migrants. It was also before President Thein Sein signed into law curbs on inter-faith marriages widely seen as targeting Muslims.

Still, the couple feared for their lives and headed west, crossing the border into Bangladesh. They got married in a local mosque.

In Cox's Bazar, they rented a tin-roofed shack where their son Shahid was born a year later. But they struggled to make ends meet during their four years there.

Mr Abdul decided to leave Cox's Bazar, travelling to Thailand in March on a smuggler's boat. His wife - being Buddhist and, unlike him, able to travel freely through Myanmar - returned home with their son and sneaked into Thailand two months later, in May.

The smuggler painted a pleasant picture of Mr Abdul's prospective journey. "He said… there would be three persons to every cabin." The price? 60,000 baht (S$2,400).

When Mr Abdul eventually arrived on the vessel in the Bay of Bengal, there were nearly 600 people crammed into the three-tier boat and just enough space for each person to sit on his haunches, with knees up to his chest.

The boat captain fired his gun near the ear of anybody who tried to move. Many defecated where they sat, into any receptacle they could find. A young man was felled by diarrhoea and thrown overboard when he died. "I cried a lot," said Mr Abdul. "I thought I would die before I arrived."

After 40 days at sea, the migrants were put ashore on an island near the Thai-Malaysian border, before being moved to a mountainous camp in Padang Besar. It was in one of the border camps that Thai security forces would later uncover mass graves that triggered a regional migration crisis.

Like many others before him, Mr Abdul was flogged at the camp several times before his family in Myanmar paid the full amount for his journey and he was freed.

By a twist of fate, he bumped into a Rohingya friend near the Thai-Malaysian border where he was freed. This friend offered him a roof and a job in Bangkok.

Two months later, Ms Asimah spent 25,000 baht and eight days on bus journeys with her son that took them past Sittwe, Yangon and the border town of Myawaddy. There, they crossed a parched river and slipped into the Thai border town of Mae Sot. From Mae Sot, it was just a two-day road journey down to Bangkok.

Today, the family share a townhouse with two other families on the outskirts of Bangkok. Mr Abdul, now 26, spends his day hauling ice at a market for 400 baht a day.

According to a Reuters report, there were 600 Rohingya stranded in Thai shelters and immigration shelters in October. With the authorities now taking a tougher stance against undocumented migrants, the couple are wary even of straying too far from their home to seek refugee status at the United Nations office in Bangkok.

The triumph of Myanmar's opposition party led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi over the military-backed incumbent party in last month's polls has given them some hope.

"We would like to go back to the country," Mr Abdul said. "But not now. And not to our hometown. Maybe Yangon." •All names have been changed.



This article was first published on December 25, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.