Safety for refugees in Spain – but at a cost

After fleeing war, a Somali and Syrian in Madrid describe the difficulties of starting a new life in a foreign land.

Madrid, Spain,
A banner welcoming refugees hangs from the City Hall in Madrid, though living conditions aren't as hospitable [Paul White/Al Jazeera]

Madrid, Spain – For much of his adult life, the Somali man has only known struggle. From the moment he left his war-torn homeland to his eventual arrival in Spain, he has had to fight for his very existence, seldom finding peace in a long and tortuous journey that began back in 2002.

Sitting under the warm sun of Puerta del Sol in central Madrid, he looks older than his 33 years, his steady gaze revealing nothing of the deep mental scars that lie within after leaving his home in southern Somalia 13 years ago to flee from al-Shabab fighters.

The Spanish capital has been his home since 2012, but while it provides sanctuary from a violent past, Madrid has become a city where dreams of success have turned to despair.

A Somali refugee reflects on life in Madrid [Alasdair Soussi/Al Jazeera]
A Somali refugee reflects on life in Madrid [Alasdair Soussi/Al Jazeera]
“I’m living in one of Europe’s countries, but I don’t have a job, and I have very little help,” said the Somali, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing publicity would negatively affect opportunities in Spain.

“You can feel the pressure of living and what you want in life – your dreams, your ambitions – here in Spain, is so very hard [to achieve].”

An arduous journey

The Somali man told Al Jazeera that on his long route to Europe, he first arrived in Kenya, then in South Africa, and then in Libya.

In Libya, he was captured by people smugglers who extorted $800 from him. After they let him go, he was arrested by Libyan police and thrown in jail. After a wretched three months, he was released, whereupon he tried and failed to get to Italy.

In 2011, he spied a chance to finally reach Europe by boat, travelling from Morocco to Spain.

Along with more than 40 other refugees, he headed for the Spanish coast, but the flimsy boat began to leak and sank. About 15 people drowned, but he was one of the lucky survivors. After many hours of treading water, a Spanish vessel arrived and took them to safety.

Once on the mainland, he made a failed attempt to seek asylum in the Netherlands, but eventually, he settled in Madrid after he was granted asylum in Spain, along with a five-year residency permit.

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Today, Europe is attempting to deal with a refugee crisis of a breathtaking scale. The Spanish government has come under pressure to play a role befitting of one of the EU’s largest economies.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, after initially saying Spain would limit itself to an earlier commitment to receive nearly 3,000 refugees, this month caved in to pressure to accept an additional14,931 refugees.

Safety's a priority for everybody in the world - but if you have safety but cannot manage to survive, then it's another kind of worry.

by Somali refugee in Madrid

Rajoy had said Spain’s high unemployment rate – at 22.4 percent, one of the highest in the EU bloc – prevented it from absorbing more refugees.

But as opposition leaders lined up to call on the government to open its doors wider and a large banner declaring “Refugees Welcome” in English was unfurled on Madrid’s city hall earlier in September, the Rajoy said the country would accept more people under the European Commission’s proposed new quota system.

A further 17,000 arrivals, falling outside of this plan, and mostly from Syria, are also anticipated by the Spanish government.

Yet, activists and NGOs in Spain are calling on the government to do more – not least when it comes to caring for the refugees already there.

Germany, which is expecting to receive about one million refugees this year, has quickly gained a good reputation among fleeing populations for its long-term care and support.

In Spain, however, many refugees discover there are limits to their host country’s generosity.

“Refugees in Spain only have six months of protection by the government,” Ussama Jandali – a human rights activist with a Madrid-based NGO that provides humanitarian aid to Syrians trapped in their country – told Al Jazeera.

“During this time, refugees receive only 50 euros ($56.5) each month – which is not enough to cover costs – and they are given Spanish lessons, which are insufficient. Most want to leave Spain and go to Germany or Sweden where they feel they will have a better chance,” Jandali said.

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One Syrian woman living in Spain has often considered leaving. Also asking to remain anonymous because of her situation, she fled Syria in 2013 when her neighbourhood in Damascus was besieged by fighting. After witnessing the gruesome sights of bodies being eaten by dogs, the 35-year-old, along with her parents and two sisters, decided to leave.

Spain was an obvious destination because another one of the daughters was married to a Spanish man and was living in the country. Yet, after the term of care by the Spanish authorities expired, the woman and her family were left to fend for themselves and forced to borrow money wherever they could.

Today, she has found work in Madrid teaching English to Spanish children. She told Al Jazeera that while she has reconciled herself to never living in her home country again, she often struggles with the idea of a future in her adopted country.

She had worked for the United Nations in Syria before the war began.”I am now 35 years old, and it’s very difficult to start again in another place,” she said.

 The Facebook page of a people smuggler

“We were thinking about moving to Germany, but the thought of learning another language and getting used to another culture is very hard. If I were alone, maybe I would think about moving – but when you have a family, it becomes very difficult – even for my mother,” she said. 

The Somali refugee said he has great sympathy for the current flow of people arriving from places such as Syria and attempting to make a life for themselves in Europe. 

Yet, bereft of government support and currently living in a shelter provided by a Madrid-based NGO, he knows that dreams of a better life are not always found on Europe’s streets.

“Safety’s a priority for everybody in the world – but if you have safety but cannot manage to survive, then it’s another kind of worry,” he said.

One day, he said, he hopes to stop taking on temporary work unloading trucks and become a successful businessman.

“I’m safe here – but my life’s not happy.”

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera