KOPINGEBRO, Sweden (Reuters) - Ali Jamal travelled thousands of miles on foot, by train and road to flee violence in Syria while Jomaah piled his family into a camper van to smuggle them north to Europe.
They have now reached safety in Sweden, some of the growing thousands of Syrians who are evading the European Union’s frontier controls to escape the turmoil of the past 18 months.
That is raising calls for a more focused European response to a refugee crisis that has seen over 200,000 Syrians flee to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and, especially, Turkey. From there, a determined, and usually richer, few press on to the EU borders, mainly into Greece, with most hoping for asylum further north.
Sweden alone, 2,500 km (1,500 miles) from Turkey’s European frontier, is expecting 17,000 Syrians to show up seeking refuge this year and next, reflecting a sharply rising trend across the continent; barely a tenth of that number reached Sweden in the first half of this year - itself a marked increase on 2011.
“I crossed a river and someone said, ‘You’re in Europe. No one can stop you now’,” said Jamal, a student from Idlib, recalling the relative ease of reaching a refugee centre in Kopingebro, southern Sweden, after a tough trek into Greece.
Fearing a call-up to President Bashar al-Assad’s army, by which his brother had lately been killed trying to desert, the 24-year-old said he felt he had to flee. He spent two days zig-zagging through the mountains of northwestern Syria, dodging bombs and roadblocks to reach the relative safety of Turkey.
With some 75,000 Syrians already registered there, and the United Nations forecasting up to 200,000 could eventually cram in to camps in Turkey, those who can afford it are casting their hopes further afield; Jamal, speaking at the asylum reception hostel in Kopingebro, near Ystad, said he spent 25 days in Turkey before embarking on a shadowy journey overland northward.
Like Jomaah, who spent thousands of dollars hiring a minivan and driver in Turkey to take his family on a clandestine odyssey across Europe, Jamal offered few details of a trip outside the law; but Syrians see it as their only option to escape danger when formal, visa-limited outward travel is all but impossible.
When Jamal’s brother was among a group of Syrian soldiers shot in March as they tried to desert, his mind was made up: “I am wanted in Syria,” he said. “I don’t want to fight and kill people. I want to study. I want to live a normal life.”
The secrecy of illegal border crossings and the patchiness of statistics combining data from the 27 EU member states means the full picture of Syrian migration into the bloc is unclear.
But Germany saw almost as many apply for asylum in the first seven months of this year - 2,246 - as in all of 2011, while Britain and several other countries also report rising figures, according to data from the EU statistics agency Eurostat.
Fearing a rise in illicit crossings, Greece is boosting patrols on its border with Turkey; EU border agency Frontex said there was a twelvefold rise in Syrians caught trying to cross the Greek-Turkish frontier illegally in the six months to June.
But if nearly 2,400 were stopped, Eurostat said 12,325 Syrians had lodged asylum appeals across the EU from January to June - a figure likely to understate the numbers coming in, due to delays in collating data and the fact that not all register.
While the numbers are still small, whether compared to Syria’s population of over 20 million or to the EU’s 500 million, the move to flight has placed strains on all concerned.
Sweden has had to improvise accommodation. In the case of Jamal and Jomaah that is a hostel normally used by tourists near Kopingebro, on the south coast. Many have moved into picturesque red cottages on an island campsite, which opened last week.
Syrians became the third largest group of asylum seekers in Sweden after Somalis and Afghans at 1,855 in the period from January to July, compared to 303 in the same period last year.
Because of the perceived extreme danger, Sweden has approved nearly all Syrian asylum applications so far this year.
Jomaah, who did not want to give his family name for fear of reprisals against his relatives at home, fled with his wife and children after he was handcuffed and beaten by Assad’s forces.
His father drove them to the mountains, whence they went on foot into Turkey. He paid $8,000 to hire a camper wagon and driver to take them into Europe, winding by back roads through village after village on a three-day journey, living concealed in the back of the van on a box of bread, cheese and yogurt.
”They don’t stop these camper vans,“ said Jomaah of the low-profile tactic his guide used to evade the spot police checks which would have thwarted his bid to reach Sweden. ”They think, ‘tourists’,“ he said. ”We were in the back and couldn’t see anything. Maybe it was Bulgaria, maybe Hungary.
“It took a long time to get through Germany.”
Many of those with the means to make it to Sweden have left comfortable lives, are well educated and had good jobs. Jomaah, a ship’s engineer, spoke of a sprawling family villa surrounded by a garden with olive and lemon trees, a car, his dog and even a boat on which he and his relatives went sailing.
Now, they cram into a room fitted with bunk beds from Swedish budget furniture chain IKEA, eat the local meatballs with macaroni and race to finish the family laundry in their once-a-week, two-hour slot at the communal facility.
And not everyone makes it. Several Syrians drowned last month when the boat bringing them from Turkey sank off Cyprus.
Some migration experts are urging the European Union to make it easier for Syrians - and to arrange a more organized welcome.
Noting that Sweden expects 17,000 Syrians to arrive this year and next, making them the biggest national group of asylum-seekers next year, Mikael Ribbenvik, a director at the Swedish Migration Board, said: ”Resources are clearly stretched.
“That is a big number for a small country,” he told Reuters.
Philippe Fargues, director of the Migration Policy Centre thinktank at Florence, said Europe should do more to open its borders by saying that anyone coming from Syria could be counted as a refugee, rather than formally have to prove refugee status.
“We are facing a huge crisis at the external border of Europe and that should not continue,” he said.
Fargues argued that European bodies and European Union states also had to do more to coordinate their policies so that Syrians would find it easier to seek asylum - as well as to help those countries dealing with the greatest refugee numbers.
For now, the reality for those Syrians fortunate to make it out and get as far as Stockholm is lining up at a government office in the suburbs of the Swedish capital to go through hours of bureaucracy in order to file a claim for political asylum.
“Everyone who comes here is losing something,” said Antony Sawires, who reached Sweden with his family a month ago after leaving a house in Damascus and a job in the communications industry. “But we win the safety.”
Though counting himself lucky after seeing two cars blow up before he left his home, he was still adjusting to life as a refugee: “I will never have the same lifestyle here,” he said as he waited to be called forward to fill out more paperwork.
But his wife, who did not give her name as her eyes filled with tears, was quick to reassure him: “Home,” she said, “Is where you feel safe.”
Additional reporting and writing by Patrick Lannin in Stockholm and additional reporting by Elisa Oddone in Berlin and Alessandra Prentice in London; Editing by Alastair Macdonald