BEIRUT An Internet search landing the result ‘French Guiana’ changed the destiny of Alaa al-Taweel, Ahmad al-Yassin and Mahmoud, who asked for his name being changed for security reasons. These Syrians are among the hundreds of Syrian refugees who have flown to Latin America to cross to the tiny French overseas territory bordering Brazil in an attempt to access the European continent.

Most of the 5.6 million Syrians that fled their country since 2011 sought refuge in neighboring states like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Others risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean, a journey that has claimed the lives of 256 persons in 2020 alone. Over 220,000 Syrians have been resettled, namely in Europe, Australia and the USA. And around 600 Syrians have found a less “straightforward” exile route: French Guiana.

Between  2016 and 2018, around 60 Syrians lodged asylum claims in this Amazonian territory each year, but the numbers spiked recently with 258 asylum applications in 2019 and 150 in January 2020. Most of the asylum seekers transited via Brazil, a country that offers humanitarian visas for Syrians. “It is a trip that has a lot of stops, especially in Brazil. Sometimes people spend several months or years, some work in Brazil to have the means to continue the trip,” Matthias Geraud, president of CIMADE, an association that offers legal assistance to asylum seekers in French Guiana, told Syria Direct.

Geraud noticed that Syrians that arrived in 2016 and 2017 came directly from Syria and were from “an upper class.” Currently, however, many Syrians – and Palestinians from Syria – come from Lebanon, and he sensed that they were from a “lower class.” Still, the cost of the transatlantic flight is out of reach for most Syrian refugees. Ahmad’s journey cost him $900 and Alaa’s $2,800.

 

Arrivals decreased after the border closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We demanded authorities to let asylum seekers enter the country under a health protocol, but our petition was rejected,” Geraud said. Some have tried to enter the French territory by boat; on November 3, a boat capsized, leaving several missing in the Atlantic Ocean. 

A map shows the location of French Guiana on the northern Atlantic coast of Latin America (Wikimedia)

Three serendipitous journeys 

Escaping the shelling of their hometown in the countryside of northern Aleppo province in 2013, Ahmad’s family scattered: his parents fled near Syria’s city of Afrin, one brother went to Germany, another to the Netherlands, and Ahmad, 18 years old then, ended up in Lebanon to avoid being conscripted into the Syrian army. In Lebanon, life was tough. “There was no work; I was just [staying] at home,” Ahmad told Syria Direct. He read on the internet about French Guiana and managed to get a humanitarian visa for Brazil. In January 2020, he flew to Brazil, where he headed directly to Saint George’s border crossing to Guiana and entered French territory. 

When Alaa finished his university studies in 2017, he knew he could soon be conscripted. “I didn’t want to serve; I didn’t want to participate in massacres,” the 30-year-old civil engineer from the city of Shahba in Syria’s southern Suwayda province, told Syria Direct. In March 2018, he flew to Venezuela via Lebanon. He had family in Venezuela, but soon the country plunged into crisis so he kept looking for an opportunity to reach Europe, and then Alaa found out about French Guiana. In July 2019, he traveled to Brazil and then to Guiana. 

After more than a decade working in Gulf countries, Mahmoud went back to Suwayda in 2017, where he got married and had a baby. In 2011, he had paid the $5,000 fee - that later became $8,000 - to be exempted from conscription. In May 2019, he was assaulted and injured by armed men on the road, and his pick-up was stolen. “I told myself I don’t want to live in Syria anymore,” the 35-year-old recalled. He tried to move to Iraq, but the country burst into protests. So in January 2020, through a friend, his family received an invitation to go to Brazil, and once there, they heard about Guiana and made their way there.

Finding solace in an Amazonian corner

Alaa stands in a museum in French Guiana, October 2019 (Alaa al-Taweel)

These three Syrians felt accepted in Guiana. “The welcome was better than I could have ever imagined; they made us feel as if we were among family,” Alaa said. “They were very humane; they helped us a lot when we arrived. I felt respected,” Mahmoud added. Guiana’s history is written through migrations; 60% of the people have a foreign origin, according to Geraud. “A solidarity network was created with the arrival of these populations.” Volunteers help asylum seekers with their asylum process or give French lessons. But Geraud warned that part of the population is in the frame of “nationalism, protectionism and sometimes racism.”

A few days after their arrival, Alaa and Mahmoud were offered housing by the Red Cross, while Ahmad slept in a tent to escape the rain in a camp called “Des Amandiers” for three months, until the Red Cross offered him shelter in a hangar with 40 people when COVID-19 hit in March. 

A hangar in Cayenne named “La Fabrique,” where Ahmad currently lives with 40 asylum seekers, 11/2020 (Ahmad al-Yassin)

While in France [in mainland Europe] the rate of asylum seekers offered shelter is 47%, in French Guiana it is 5-10%, explained Geraud. “Today, the border is closed, and we still have 150 asylum seekers on the street; when the border reopens, the situation is going to be deplorable,” he alerted. The Guyanese authorities have announced a reduction in shelter places – currently at 420, a decision Geraud dubbed as “incoherent.” 

Asylum seekers have the right to receive a monthly allowance by the French Office of Immigration and Integration that varies depending on their family size and shelter situation. Alaa received around 110, Ahmad 250 and Mahmoud 330 for him, his wife and their one-year-old daughter. An entry-level salary in Cayenne is about €1,200. Geraud noticed that the amount refugees receive in Guiana is less than what asylum seekers receive in France.

France offers two types of protection: a ten-year refugee status and a subsidiary protection equivalent to a residency permit that lasts between one and four years. Alaa and Mahmoud obtained refugee status, but Ahmad’s asylum application was rejected. “They thought I was lying; until now, I do not understand what happened,” he said. He is now waiting for the result of his appeal in the National Court. “We’ve seen an evolution, many are getting rejected in the first instance and are obliged to appeal, and more are getting the subsidiary protections instead of the refugee status,” Geraud explained.

Envisaging a new life

In March 2020, Alaa landed in Toulouse, southeast France. A day after, the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, but he managed to get temporary housing through an association. Alaa sometimes works as a painter and is hoping to further his civil engineer studies in France. “I am confident I can live here with stability, as a productive member that can leave a mark in the society,” he said.

Mahmoud is traveling this week to Metz, in northeast France. “I am happy; at least I feel hope,” he said. He is planning to learn French and work as a driver in France. “All my dreams are now here; now I have a new life.” 

Although Ahmad was surprised to see his claim rejected, he still feels lucky. “I could not imagine I could get out of Lebanon. I thought that I had no option but to return to Syria and I would be in big trouble.” He is now planning to learn French and is getting used to the Amazonian landscape. He is even thinking of staying in Guiana and not going to France ‘metropole.’ “Maybe I will stay here. This is very nice; it is a dream.”