Syria: the dangers of home replaced by a perilous sea journey to Italy

One of the largest group of migrant minors, rescued by operation Mare Nostrum
One of the largest group of migrant minors, rescued by operation Mare Nostrum

We all know that Syrians are fleeing their war-ravaged country. The lucky ones make it across a border – but then what happens?

This is no fairy tale, where trials are rewarded with a happily ever after.

Enormous numbers

Many Syrians wind up in camps in neighbouring countries.

The numbers are enormous: 1,092,272 Syrians in Lebanon, equal to a quarter of the Lebanese population; almost 600,000 in Jordan; and over a quarter of a million in Iraq (and look at what’s now happening there).

Many don’t want to stay in these nearby countries and plenty are discouraged from doing so – in Libya, according to our report, The Boat is Safe and Other Lies, the situation for Syrians in Libya is so bad that they no longer feel free to walk around.

Their children can’t attend schools. This is not quite out of the frying pan into the fire but nor is it the safe haven these much-buffeted people so badly need.

Smuggled into Europe

So they leave. They pay smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean on dilapidated boats, with little or no food or water and the ever-present risk of catastrophe. They know it is often a deadly journey, but, they told our researchers, it is “still better than living in that hell”.

The upshot is ever-rising numbers of Syrians arriving in Italy – and ever more of those arrivals are children. In July 2013, 689 Syrians came to Italy by sea – that’s more than arrived during the whole of 2012. They included 123 women and 230 children, most of whom were unaccompanied.

Mohammad *, 17, originally from Syria, at a reception centre in Milan
Mohammad *, 17, originally from Syria, at a reception centre in Milan

Children alone and unprotected

Some of these children are very young. Many have experienced violence, abuse, the death of friends or parents.

They have been forced to risk their short lives to come to a strange land: the tally of drownings makes grim reading. And often, they have done all this alone.

Supporting Syrian migrants in Milan

Save the Children has opened a day centre, CivicoZero, in Milan, to protect unaccompanied children in this dauntingly big city, and to provide support to Syrian families.

In cooperation with local organisations, Save the Children offers legal support and hygiene kits as well as the kind of cultural explanations a non-Italian speaker, exhausted, terrified and unsure of their future, so badly needs.

Operation Mare Nostrum

Between August and October 2013 at least 400 refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Syria, died at sea. Accordingly, in October, Italy launched Operation Mare Nostrum: now, the Italian Navy rescues these precarious travellers.

Nonetheless, on 12 May another accident took place off the Libyan coast. The Navy rescued 206 migrants – but three men died, as did 12 women, a baby girl just a few months old and another child no older than two.

A grim end to a terrible tale

Many of these children had escaped horror in Syria only to end their dreadfully short lives in the Mediterranean.

And if the numbers fleeing Syria keep rising, there are likely to be more little ghosts haunting these turquoise waters. When most of us hear mention of the Med, we think of holidays in the sun. We don’t think of graves, or of children who will never know anything resembling leisure time. Just violence, and flight, and a watery death.

*Name changed to protect identity

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  • Lionel Burman

    This is a crisis on an enormous scale; Italy alone should not have to bear the burden. It is a responsibility for all those governments whose involvement in the Middle East has led to it. We have not yet learnt to accept responsibility for our actions and to hold our governments to account.