DUBAI (Reuters) - The affluent United Arab Emirates is not a normal jumping off point for Syrians fleeing war. But this is where Tareq began a “five-star” journey to a new life in Sweden, paying a high price to avoid the grave risks and hardships that most refugees face.
Aided by human traffickers who operate a network of agents across the Middle East and Europe, the 26-year-old made it from the Gulf emirate of Dubai to Sweden in just three weeks, and in relative comfort.
Migrants typically pay 700 euros ($780) for the sea crossing to Europe, a fee that buys them space on a packed, often unseaworthy boat run by the traffickers.
But last year Tareq took a 3,000 euro “package”, funded by his concerned, middle class Damascene family. They were also able to pay many thousands more for other expenses such as fake identity documents as he headed for Sweden, which gives automatic residency to Syrian refugees.
While the price was high, he arrived safely - unlike the more than 2,500 people who have died so far this year trying to cross the sea from North Africa to Italy, or from Turkey to the Greek islands.
Central Damascus has escaped the worst of the Syrian civil war but young men still face being called up. Even if they don’t have to fight, jobs are scarce in the shattered economy.
“I found myself having to choose between living on handouts from my family or taking a risk, hoping that once you cross the sea, you will have a chance for a better life,” the tall, bearded young man told Reuters by Skype from the northern Swedish town of Boliden.
For 18 months the marketing graduate, who did not want his family name to be given, scanned head-hunters’ websites and attended countless interviews without success. Then he went to the UAE on a business visa in 2012, early in the Syrian conflict, to join a venture run by relatives.
He was one of thousands of Syrians, and Palestinians with Syrian documents, who have joined family members and friends already resident in the UAE during the war. But the enterprise faltered and Tareq’s efforts to find work in Lebanon and Algeria also failed. And so his thoughts turned to Europe.
One day last year, he packed a pair of blue jeans, his mobile phone and laptop, and joined his many compatriots hoping to find sanctuary in the European Union.
The number of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa making the crossing to Europe has passed 300,000 this year, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR has said, up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014.
However, few can afford to travel the way Tareq did. Having failed to dissuade him from leaving, Tareq’s family decided to cover his travel costs to what he described as the migrants’ dream destination - Sweden.
“We did some research and found that if you pay a little more, you can travel five-star,” said Tareq’s mother, Rema, who has remained in the Middle East. “We wanted to be sure that even his toe would not get wet.”
Tareq’s journey from Dubai began with a flight to Turkey, which Syrians can visit with few bureaucratic hurdles. In Istanbul, fellow Syrians put him in touch with the traffickers.
After a week at a local hotel, Tareq flew to the coastal city of Izmir where he boarded a small but comfortable boat for the short voyage to the Greek island of Rhodes.
Most migrants follow this route packed into inflatable dinghies which easily capsize. But Tareq’s more substantial boat carried just a handful of passengers, and only for the last stretch did they transfer to a dinghy.
Tareq’s main worry was being stopped by Greek coastguards. “Luckily, nothing of that sort materialized and within a few hours, we were close enough to the Rhodes shore for the captain to put us on a rubber boat that dropped us on the beach,” he said.
Following the traffickers’ instructions, he took a taxi to the nearest police station to register as a refugee. There, he was detained and given two nights’ shelter before being freed on condition he would not leave the island.
Disregarding this, Tareq linked up with smugglers who arranged his onward journey to Athens on the Greek mainland.
For an extra 4,000 euros, wired to Tareq by his family to his north Athens hotel, a fake French passport and a Slovak ID card were arranged to help him board a flight to France.
Once there, Tareq could reach Sweden unhindered, traveling through Europe’s Schengen area, where border controls are no longer routinely made.
Sweden has a long tradition of welcoming refugees. Paperwork can be minimal and arrivals are given a medical test before being moved on to temporary homes. Tareq was one of 81,000 people who sought asylum there last year, second in Europe only to Germany, with Syrians making up the biggest group.
After a tranquil night at his new home in Boliden, Tareq applied for permanent residency.
“In a few years, I will be able to return to the Middle East with my Swedish passport,” he said.
Reporting by Sami Aboudi, Editing by William Maclean and David Stamp