Italian officials are turning a blind eye to the Syrian refugees fleeing the country for Northern Europe. And even the refugees themselves are worried that anyone could be traveling in their midst -- even terrorists with the Islamic State.
BERLIN — For nine days, 32-year-old Muhammad and over 350 fellow migrants, mostly Syrians like him, were stuck below deck, surrounded by choppy Mediterranean waves and fearing for their lives. The boat had left the Turkish port of Mersin and was now nearing Italian waters. Every migrant, each of them intending to apply for asylum in the European Union, had paid $6,000 for the trip.
They would soon find themselves stranded, far off course. Instead of Italy, the ship’s captain — who did not want to get caught by the Italian authorities — sailed near the coast of war-torn eastern Libya. After six days at sea, the captain abandoned the crowded container ship, jumping on a second boat and leaving the desperate 350 immigrants behind.
“The ship felt very much like a floating coffin,” Muhammad said. “Everybody was scared it would flip and we would drown.”
It was far from a baseless fear. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, almost 3,500 people drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life in Europe in 2014 alone.
The captain left a Thuraya satellite phone aboard. Muhammad called a number for the Italian Coast Guard that another passenger had, by chance, brought with him. Soon, a Coast Guard airplane flew over their position, and directed a nearby cargo vessel to take the migrants aboard. The ship then sailed to the Sicilian port of Catania, where the migrants were transported to a refugee center.
Muhammad, however, was surprised to see that the Italian authorities took little interest in who these hundreds of migrants were, or where they intended to go.
“Nobody checked us upon reaching Italy,” he says. “No coast guard, no policeman ever asked if we had papers. Nobody registered us, nobody took a photo of us, nobody took our fingerprints, no one asked us who we were.”
Muhammad found this curious, but far from unwelcome. Although the migrants were happy that the Italians had saved them from the sea, none of them intended to stay in the country. The facilities for immigrants in Italy are notoriously bad, according to Muhammad — he and his comrades yearned for the travel papers, housing, and financial support offered by countries in Northern Europe.
According to Muhammad, all of the migrants on the boat wanted to move either to Germany, Sweden, or the Netherlands. Because all those countries are part of the Schengen Area, along with Italy, border controls are lax or nonexistent — once an immigrant reaches Italy, he or she can freely travel to any other Schengen country.
But there is one condition: Migrants can only seek asylum in the first European country where they are registered. Muhammad and the other migrants feared that getting fingerprinted and processed in Italy would mean they no longer could apply for asylum in Germany.
Muhammad and the other migrants would soon find that their Italian hosts were no more interested in keeping them there than they themselves were in staying. When Muhammad asked the Italian police at the asylum center if he had to stay there, one said that he was welcome to sleep there, “but if you want to leave, you can leave.”
While Muhammad was speaking with the policemen, other Syrians in the refugee center discovered that the back door to the center was open. They walked out, and disappeared into the night. The police then locked the back door.
But that little obstacle was not about to stop Muhammad and the men he had befriended during the boat trip. They quickly scaled the 10-foot wall around the basketball court that served as part of the refugee center. The police never tried to stop them. Then they walked to the Catania railway station and took a train to Milan, in northern Italy. From there Muhammad continued to Berlin, while his friends left for other destinations.
Once in Germany, Muhammad visited the police, asked for asylum, and was registered as a refugee. He now has temporary papers and a room in a refugee center in Berlin. While Italy’s lax restrictions served his purpose, he fears that others will exploit it for more nefarious purposes.
“Any ISIS terrorist could have entered Italy and traveled further into Europe without any problem,” he said. “ISIS members can take their guns and hand grenades with them, because the Italians even never checked any of the luggage.”
Muhammad’s account is no isolated story. Interviews with over a dozen Syrian asylum seekers who recently crossed the Mediterranean Sea to illegally reach Europe — and who are now in the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden — reveal similar stories. In all of these cases, migrants said that they were not registered by the Italian authorities, and that the Italian police looked the other way as they walked out of refugee centers to leave Italy by train or car for countries in Western and Northern Europe.
Almost all Syrian refugees in Europe have taken this voyage north from Italy. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, a total of 217,724 Syrians applied for asylum in the European Union between April 2011 and December 2014. Although a majority of these migrants arrived in Italy, only 1,967 — less than 1 percent — stayed there. The most popular destinations are the wealthy countries of Northern Europe and Scandinavia: 59,529 Syrians applied for asylum in Germany, 53,750 in Sweden, and 11,710 in the Netherlands.
The lack of scrutiny for Syrian migrants arriving in Southern Europe, however, has raised fears that terrorists could be entering along with the regular citizens attempting to escape war. Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos even tried to use this influx of refugees as a weapon: If the EU doesn’t back down on austerity measures, he threatened on March 9, Greece would unleash “a wave of millions of economic migrants and jihadists” into Europe. In this group, he warned, “there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too.”
The threat of jihadis entering Europe in this way is far from an idle one. One refugee interviewed for this article, Bassem, paid $6,000 for a place on board a boat departing from the Turkish city of Mersin to Sicily, Italy. On the boat was also a 60-year-old Syrian man, whose son was fighting in Aleppo with the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. The rest of the family had escaped Syria and moved to Istanbul. The old man claimed he had paid $20,000 to secure three places on the boat to Italy. He and two of his sons would try to make it to Germany and get papers there. Then he planned to file for family reunion and bring his wife, daughters, and jihadi son to Germany.
Syrian refugees themselves are also worried about this threat, fearing that a terrorist attack committed by a jihadi who entered Europe in this way could mean the end of one of the only avenues for Syrians looking to build a better life.
“Really, if al Qaeda or any other terrorist group tries to smuggle people to Europe they will succeed in that,” said Hussam, another refugee, who paid $3,000 for a spot on a boat from the Egyptian port city of Alexandria to Italy. “Because if one terrorist is smuggled to Europe on these boats, the refugees will be blamed and Europe will stop receiving immigrants…. Terrorists on these boats will be a disaster for the real refugees.”
Hussam, like all the other 440 migrants on his boat, had no intention of staying in Italy after reaching shore. He just walked out of the Italian asylum center, traveling north through Milan and then to the French city of Nice before eventually arriving in Germany. Only then did he go to the authorities and register as a refugee. “But clearly, if it was so easy for me, it would have been equally easy for any terrorist,” he said.
Some politicians in the European countries these refugees are striving to reach are starting to raise the alarm about security threats. Malik Azmani, a member of the Dutch parliament aligned with the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, recently submitted a proposal that would see the Netherlands close its borders, redirecting the money it spends on asylum seekers to help refugees rebuild their lives in their own region. In the case of Syria, that would likely mean bolstering aid for refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
“Surely, there is a danger of terrorists posing as migrants who will arrive to Europe via Italy,” Azmani, who is of Moroccan descent, told Foreign Policy. “I know that the Dutch authorities are already looking into various cases of migrants from Syria who might actually be wanted for suspected war crimes.”
But while Italy’s strategy may be dangerous from a security standpoint, Rome’s first priority appears to be getting the migrants off its soil. As Ahmad, a Syrian refugee intent on reaching the Netherlands, discovered, the Italian authorities not only turned a blind eye to migrants leaving their country — they even offered advice should the migrants be turned back on their first attempt.
Ahmad arrived on Italian shores like thousands of Syrians before him, and then promptly escaped the refugee center by sneaking through a hole in a fence. He and his friends hopped on a bus for Milan, and from there took a train to Germany. But the group was caught by the police on their way through Austria, and eventually sent back to the Italian side of the border.
“The Italians immediately released us,” Ahmad said, “They told us: ‘Just use again the same train ticket and take a train later.’ This is what we did.”
The Italian Interior Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its policy for handling the refugees who arrive on Italy’s shores. But for a country like Italy — where official unemployment stands at roughly 12 percent and the government is looking for ways to slash the budget — the benefits of allowing the migrants to travel to its richer Northern European neighbors are obvious.
Christopher Hein, the director of the Italian Council for Refugees, said that there was no law preventing the Syrian migrants from leaving the refugee centers. “These are not prisons,” he said. “People indeed can just walk out.”
Nor was it government policy to force the Syrian refugees to leave Italian soil, said Hein. But given the laws that are in place, it just works out this way. “The migrants can move rather freely,” he said. “By law, Italy can’t stop them when they want to leave to other Schengen countries.”
For the Syrian refugees looking to rebuild lives that have been wrecked by the four-year war, Italy’s lack of interest in who they are or where they are going is welcome — though curious.
Bassem, the Syrian refugee who traveled on a boat with a man whose son fights for al-Nusra Front, recounted a familiar story of coming ashore in Italy and being subjected to scant registration. The Italians only took a picture of each person, he said, and gave them a piece of paper with a number on it.
From there, Bassem made his way safely to Sweden. He was only stopped once, by a policeman guarding a train station in the Italian city of Naples. “I showed him my paper with the number on it,” Bassem explained. “The policeman made a telephone call and then said to me in English, ‘Goodbye.’”