By Thore Schröder

BERLIN—We met in a moment of despair at the end of July. Mahmoud, whose name and age have been changed to protect his identity, had been prevented from crossing the Bosnian border for the third time, halting his journey to find a better life.

We sat at a restaurant in Bihac, a city close to the Croatian border in northwest Bosnia. People snacked on ice cream, sipped coffee and Rakija, a Bosnian brandy. Mahmoud was crying, recounting the brutality he had experienced by Croatia’s police force while trying to cross the border. 

Bihac, surrounded by thick forests and lush green mountains, has become a bottleneck for refugees on the western Balkan route of the European Union in recent years. Thousands of refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Syria have been stranded there as they trekked northwards to other EU countries: Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany or Sweden.

After nine days, Mahmoud and I met again, this time under the communist-era TV tower at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany. He had made it to the German capital. 

However, The Germany that greeted him today is completely different from the country which greeted the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015.

The late months of 2015 and early 2016 have become known as “Flüchtlingskrise”, or the time of the “refugee crisis.” Thousands of refugees crossed the German border each day, changing the face of German politics and society. 

While at the beginning of the crisis Germans welcomed refugees, the ensuing housing and financial problems, in addition to some high-profile crimes involving refugees provoked fear and even racism among many Germans. 

The most prominent incident was on New Year’s Eve in Cologne in 2015. Hundreds of women filed reported being groped and sexually harassed by Arab men to police. Perpetrators were found to be mostly individuals of North African descent but hate crimes towards refugees rose in response. 

The Polizeiliche Kriminalstatistik (the German police’s statistical database on crime), however, shows that, on average, refugees committed fewer crimes than Germans in 2017. Nonetheless, hate crimes are still recorded in alarming numbers. In 2016 there were over 3,500 crimes—hate speech, assault or arson—committed against refugees or refugee households. The number decreased to 2,200 in 2017, while in the first half of 2019, it stood at 609. 

The vast majority of these crimes were committed by right-wing perpetrators. The number of anti-refugee crimes committed in east Germany, on the territory of the former DDR (German Democratic Republic), is notably higher than in the west. It is here that the right-wing anti-migrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has won high percentages in the recent European Parliamentary elections, as well as in important regional and local elections.

Although the number of refugees in Germany has returned to pre-crisis levels, the consequences of the refugee crisis on the country’s political culture have endured. In 2015, 890,000 migrants and refugees arrived in the federal republic. In 2016, that number dwindled to 280,000 and has continued to decrease. 

The reasons for the decline in refugee arrivals are manifold; however, chief among them is the EU-Turkey deal to stop boats crossing the Mediterranean, in addition to other European countries building fences or investing in more border patrol staff and high-tech equipment.

In 2015 the journey from Syria to Germany was arduous and demanding. In 2018 it has become even more difficult. It takes longer, is more expensive and dangerous, and exposes those who undertake it to violence. 

All this is reflected in Mahmoud’s story. 

Mahmoud is 26-years-old. While the Syrian civil war was raging, he was studying architecture at Aleppo University. As the war progressed, visits to his family’s home in Saraqib in northwest Idlib province became increasingly difficult. He graduated with his master’s degree in 2014 and moved back to Idlib province to avoid military conscription.

Mahmoud found a job at Ebla, a private university in his hometown. He lectured there from 2015 until June of last year, when operations were suspended by Jabhat al-Nusra, currently known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and Hurras al-Din. 

“We had music playing at a graduation event. When they found out, they closed the university,” he recalls. Mahmoud was stranded in his parents’ home in Saraqib, without a job and in ever-present danger since Idlib is mostly ruled by opposition forces and extremist Islamist militant groups. 

“In February of this year when I was out in the Souk [market] shopping for groceries, two rockets struck merely 30 meters away from me,” he recalls. 

Mahmoud survived physically unscathed but became convinced that there was no future for him in Syria. He spent two weeks isolated in his room and made the decision to leave. 

“When I told my mother that I would leave she cried and begged me to stay,” he said. 

But Mahmoud did eventually leave for the Turkish border, some 50 kilometers away from Saraqib. At first, the Turkish military caught him and his group and sent them back to Syria. Two months later, Mahmoud and five other young men, among them his sister’s husband Abu Ali, got through with the help of a smuggler. 

In a village on the Turkish side, they were picked up by a taxi and drove on to Antakya, then to Konya and onwards to Istanbul. After three nights they took a bus to Edirne in northwestern Turkey, near the Greek border.

“After starting the trek we hid in a forest for 15 hours. There were Syrians, Iranians and Iraqis. There were women and crying children with us”, Mahmoud said, recounting his journey across the Turkish-Greek border.

Border crossings are usually done in a similar fashion: refugees are put in touch with a smuggler—often a former migrant who is part of a larger network—through word of mouth or WhatsApp. The two parties agree on a fee and deposit it in an escrow agency in Turkey. It is paid out when the refugees reach the destination. 

A guide, often an experienced migrant with good knowledge of the terrain, then moves the group of refugees and migrants by foot across the wilderness near the border to an agreed location, using a smartphone GPS to navigate. Then, arranges for them to be picked up by a minibus and shuttled to the next destination.

Since Hungary completed a high-tech fence along its 523-kilometer border with Serbia, refugees have begun taking the West Balkan route, through Bosnia and then up through Croatia and Slovenia into Italy. But many don’t get past Croatia; the Croatian police force is well trained, equipped with high-tech gear and uses systematic violence and intimidation to push refugees back into neighboring Bosnia

The so-called “pushbacks” into Bosnia are the norm. The German TV show report München, along with The Guardian and the investigative network Correctiv uncovered hundreds of documents from the European Border and Coastguard Agency, Frontex, in early August that substantiate the agency’s knowledge of border police’s “mistreatment of refugees,” using such methods as “hunting with dogs,” “attacks with pepper spray,” and other forms of violence. 

Border Violence Monitoring, a German NGO, has registered hundreds of cases of pushbacks and severe violence committed against refugees inside Slovenia and, most notably, Croatia.

When I met Mahmoud in Bihac he had been living in Bosnia for two months and had just been pushed back while trying to cross the border a third time. He was borrowing more money to pay smugglers and to cover daily expenses and trying different routes into Croatia. 

He had starved in a forest and been pushed back from the Slovenian border. He had put his brother-in-law in harm's way when the Croatian police beat Abu Ali with a baton. The police had taken their money, destroyed their phone and burned their backpacks.

On his fourth attempt, Mahmoud got through. The smuggler’s taxi dropped him off in Trieste, an Italian port town, where Mahmoud took a train to Milano, then another smuggler drove him to Stuttgart, where he hopped on a bus to Berlin.

The journey from Saraqib to the German capital took Mahmoud three months and cost him about 8,000. He had to borrow the money from his family in Syria and from his brother in Saudi Arabia. 

Mahmoud has large debts to pay back, and still lives in a state of limbo when it comes to his identification status. But he’s content after spending five weeks in Berlin. He went through the registration process and the mandatory medical exam to claim asylum and until his asylum investigation is over, Mahmoud is staying in a shared double room in a camp on the edge of Berlin. 

He receives a monthly stipend of 112 and a free public transportation pass. He is learning German with other migrants from Russia, Burkina Faso, Turkey and Lebanon. The course is intensive but Mahmoud is already making progress and can hold light conversation in German.  

Since Mahmoud had not registered in any other EU country he traveled through on his way to Germany, he cannot be deported under the Dublin System, which mandates that refugees or migrants have to go through asylum inspection in the EU member state in which the individual was first registered. Without fingerprints or evidence of his registration in another EU country, there is no basis for another EU country to take him. 

At the end of September, Mahmoud will have his final interview for his asylum application. Unlike in 2015, when nearly all Syrian refugees were recognized as refugees under the Geneva Refugee Convention, he may now only be granted subsidiary protection. This applies to migrants who cannot prove individual persecution. 

“However, subsidiary protection is just as safe of refugee status,” explains Dirk Morlok, a counselor at the German refugee aid organization Pro Asyl. 

According to Morlok, “any Syrian under Germany’s responsibility will still get protection in this country.” The only differences between refugee status and subsidiary protection concern the ability to travel abroad and the possibility of family reunification.

Whatever the outcome of his asylum examination, Mahmoud’s future in Berlin is guaranteed. He wants to find a job soon to start paying back his debts and to focus on his German speaking skills. He wants to continue his architecture studies as well, and promised his father that he would.