Syrian refugees flock to Europe’s doorstep

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As Washington weighs a military strike against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the human fallout of two and a half years of conflict that has sent millions into flight is no longer contained to the Middle East. Hundreds of refugees are trying to get into Europe from the Western Balkans.

"We have no other solution," said 25-year-old Syrian Mohammed Bakr, a clean-cut student of electrical engineering who has fled the besieged city of Aleppo after his home was struck by a rocket fired in an unrelenting civil war. "We have nowhere else to go," he said to border patrols on a hilltop between Serbia and Macedonia.

Last year brought a fourfold increase in the number of Syrians trying to enter the Western Balkans from Greece, one leg of a route from Turkey to the prosperous West in search of asylum.

While Greece is in the EU, it is geographically cut off from the rest of the borderless Schengen zone and immigrants are increasingly unwelcome as Greeks wrestle with an unprecedented economic crisis. Illegal migrants head north to Macedonia or Bulgaria, some through Serbia, trying to reach Hungary and on through open borders to Western Europe.

In Bulgaria, on Turkey’s western border and the poorest member of the European Union, the number of Syrians seeking asylum has shot up from 85 in 2011 to 449 in 2012 and 855 in the first seven months of this year alone. Twice as many are estimated to have made the illegal crossing.

Romania has reported an 80% rise in the first half of this year from the same period of 2012, to a total of some 640.

Exploding refugee centres

"We're conducting constant operations," said Svetlozar Lazarov, secretary general of the Bulgarian Interior Ministry.

"Forces and military equipment are deployed along the border and we have increased air surveillance," he told reporters.

On the night of August 27 alone, of 52 people detained crossing the frontier from Turkey into Bulgaria, 39 were from Syria. On Friday, police said another 106 were apprehended, of which 79 were Syrians.

Refugee centres in Bulgaria are full to the brim, putting a strain on meagre budgets and a creaking bureaucracy.

Due to lack of capacity at Bulgaria's three refugee centres, many Syrians are sent to stricter detention centres which they are not allowed to leave, kept for months behind walls topped with razor-wire and windows with bars.

The government this week urgently allocated another $380,000 (€287.000) to boost capacity by another 500 places.

"In the detention centres, refugees are in prison-like conditions," said Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the Bulgarian office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

"But at least they get food three times a day. In the open reception centres (refugee centres), they have to live off 65 Levs per month, which is less than a dollar a day for food, clothes and medicine."

At one such centre in the city of Lubimets, some 30 km inside the Bulgarian border with Turkey, young men staring from behind barred windows shouted "Freedom!" and "Help us, please" to visiting journalists.

Of 270 people at the centre, 143 were from Syria. Some rooms are shared by up to eight families at a time.

"This is no place for kids," said resident psychologist Iskra Kasheva. "It can even slow their mental development," she said. "It's no secret that the refugee camps are 120%  full – there's no place to put them."

Trafficking, extortion, abuse

More than 100,000 people have died in war that has turned increasingly sectarian. Millions have been driven from their homes inside Syria and about two million have sought refuge abroad in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Traffickers demand anywhere between a few hundred euros and 3,000 euros to get their human cargo across borders.

"We paid 500€ per adult and 250 per child to get here," said 24-year-old Janda Hussein, who said she had fled the Syrian capital Damascus with her husband and their two-year-old daughter.

"We went by foot," she said. "In Turkey we couldn't find work and were spending all our money."

In Serbia, where Syrians made up the single largest group of asylum seekers in the first half of this year, several spoke of beatings by police in Macedonia, Greece's northern neighbour, and robberies by mafia gangs.

Once in Serbia, some of those caught and who immediately request asylum are issued preliminary paperwork, dropped off at the nearest bus or train station and given 72 hours to reach one of the country's asylum centres.

Many simply then try their luck at Serbia's borders with EU members Hungary and Croatia. Beyond the normal border police at regular crossings, Serbia has around 30 patrol officers to monitor 113 kilometres of frontier with Macedonia, a notorious smuggling route for guns, drugs and people.

The United States had seemed to be gearing up for a strike against President Bashar al-Assad's forces over a 21 August poison gas attack, but is now seeking Congressional approval first.

Hundreds of people died in the chemical weapons attack, which appeared to be the worst since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fatally gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

>> Read: EU urges ‘immediate’ probe on Syria chemical attacks

More than 60,000 people have been killed since a peaceful pro-democracy movement which surfaced in Syria in March 2011 turned into a full-scale armed revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It has now become a sectarian conflict that analysts say could destabilise neighbouring state

Arab states on Sunday (1 September) urged the international community to take action against the Syrian government.

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