Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria...why Europe?

When we think of refugees, we may imagine the chaotic scenes we witnessed on the news in August 2021 from Afghanistan: thousands of people crowding, trying anything to leave (remember the horrific images of people clinging onto the outside of massive jets that were taking off?). In February and March, we saw millions of Ukrainians move, en masse to the border, and take buses, trains, cars, and planes to a safe country of their choosing. While this aligns with perhaps our standard view of refugee situations, it is by and large not how most refugees are forced to leave.

The problem with applying this imagery to all refugee situations is that it suggests that this is the only way people escape from their countries. The truth is most of the time quite different: there are not necessarily large crowds and long lines of people at airports or land borders. People generally are not lining up at train stations to take the next available train out of the country.

For example, someone fleeing Iran does not, generally, go to the airport in Tehran and board a flight to Athens. A family in danger in Somalia does not walk across the border into Djibouti and begin their live anew. There are not thousands of people in Yemen crowding around the airport, buying tickets to Frankfurt or London. Instead, because of visa restrictions, lack of diplomatic relations, xenophobic policies, racism, and Islamophobia, the routes that people must take are far more dangerous.

Shiraz's Story

Let's take, for example, a young woman who participated in the Iranian protests in the last two months. She was threatened with death, and decided that she had no option but to leave the country. No one would blame any of the protestors for feeling a legitimate fear of persecution. (which is the definition of a refugee)

"Perhaps you are surprised to learn that there is only one country separating Iran from Greece."

However, anyone leaving Iran will be subject to a great deal of scrutiny, both in Iran and from the country they are attempting to fly to. Imagine if you are defying the government and then you must coordinate with this same government in order to leave. It doesn't make sense. So people are forced to turn to smuggling routes, disappearing with little notice. They may walk across the border to Turkey in the cover of darkness, or hidden in a cargo truck.

Once she arrived in Turkey, she only had a little money, she believed she was followed from Iran by a government spy, and she doesn't speak Turkish. She had no health insurance, and she couldn't return to Iran. From here, she decided that she will try to get to Europe. She has an Aunt in Germany who can help her stay safe and help her to find work. So Shiraz spent her last money on a smuggler, who offered to get her to Europe by boat for "only" 1000.00 euros. He said it was a good deal but she won't be allowed to wear a life jacket.

From the West coast of Turkey, she could see the Greek islands, only a few kilometres away. If she went back to Iran she knew she'd be tortured and killed; if she stayed in Turkey she would be unable to find housing, food, work...if she reached Europe, she could at least be with a family member who could help her.

So she boarded a small inflatable boat that should only hold a maximum of 8 people. On this night, it had 35 people on it, bound for a ten kilometre journey to Europe. Only two hundred metres from the Turkish coast, the boat's engine failed and because of the number of people in the boat, the water started seeping in the sides of the boat. People threw their backpacks over the edge to try to lighten the weight of the boat but it didn't help. People were screaming and crying and the lights of the shore bobbed in and out of view over the waves. People panicked. An hour later, the boat was completely destroyed and all 35 people - men, women, and children, were in the cold water in the middle of the night...

Perhaps it is surprising to realize that there is only one country that separates Iran from Greece. This is the same for Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan. Therefore, for thousands of people, this journey is their only option.

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