Pope Francis underscores plight of young refugees at meeting with hundreds of children at the Vatican.
Berlin, Germany – Once a popular destination for tourists, Syria’s coastal city of Tartus has seen little fighting during the five-year civil war that has engulfed the country.
Sitting in his room in a crowded refugee camp in the Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin, 29-year-old Adham, who asked not to give his surname out of fear for the safety of relatives back in Syria, recalls his reasons for leaving the city.
“There is no fighting in my city; there are no guns,” he says. “But it’s not safe for young men there. They are collected from the street and taken to the army. So, there are a lot of children, women and old men there and that’s it.”
For a year and a half, Adham, who worked as a marine engineer in Syria, dodged military conscription by leaving home and hiding in the houses of friends whenever recruitment officers came to deliver his army summons.
A charismatic young man with a broad smile and a tendency to make jokes, Adham sits on the unmade bottom bunk of his bed and assumes a sombre tone, fidgeting nervously as he recounts his flight from his homeland.
Although he was initially granted an official exemption from military service by the Syrian government after paying a fee, recruitment officers started returning to his home every four or five months.
“There was no solution, so I had to leave,” he says. “There are a lot of young men leaving Syria because they don’t want to be in the military. It’s better than being Syrian and killing one another.”
Evading military conscription in Syria is punishable with imprisonment – a looming threat that touches close to home for Adham, whose cousin died in custody after being locked up for refusing to join the army.
Syria’s uprising started with largely unarmed protests against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, but it quickly evolved into a full-scale civil war that has killed more than 270,000 people, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Efforts to mediate a ceasefire between rebel forces and the Syrian government have collapsed time and again.
Exhausted from the stress of dodging military recruiters and the trauma of seeing friends and neighbours return to Tartus in coffins, Adham decided to leave the country and make the perilous journey to Europe in January 2016.
Right-wing and centrist politicians across Europe have argued against providing asylum for young men who are of military age. In Germany, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has been at the forefront of these efforts.
In March, the AfD capitalised on some Germans’ resentment towards the government’s refugee policies in order to make huge gains in regional elections, winning 12.6 percent, 15.1 percent and 24.2 percent of the ballots in the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wurttemberg and Saxony-Anhalt, respectively.
Georg Pazderski, the AfD’s Berlin chairman, folds his arms on the conference table in his party’s headquarters and casually notes that he spent several years as an officer in the German military.
“Let me ask you a question: Who is liberating Syria now? Is NATO liberating Syria? Should the Russians liberate Syria? Or should these young men liberate Syria?”
“I think they should fight for their country – and they should stay back to fight for their country,” he adds.
Pazderski argues that the presence of single, male refugees creates the potential for security risks in Germany.
“Maybe they have a different picture of women in the public,” he says, alluding to the more than 1,000 assault complaints largely attributed in public discourse to asylum seekers in Germany’s Cologne on New Year’s Eve. At least 492 of those complaints were related to sexual assault.
Though the number of asylum seekers involved in the attacks remains unclear, German media reports suggest few of those involved were recent arrivals in the country. Nine men have so far been convicted of theft during the New Year’s Eve incidents, while there hasn’t been a successful sexual assault prosecution. Nevertheless, the German government weighed the option of deporting any asylum seekers found guilty.
Germany is not the only European country where politicians espouse such sentiments. In December, Czech President Milos Zeman described the influx of refugees into Europe as an “organised invasion” carried out mostly by young men.
“A large majority of the illegal migrants are young men in good health and single. I wonder why these men are not taking up arms to fight for the freedom of their countries against Islamic State,” Zeman said in a Christmas address to the country, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS as it is also known) armed group. “I am profoundly convinced we are facing an organised invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees.”
This position is not uniquely European, either. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November 2015 announced that his country would accept 25,000 Syrians, but that single males were excluded from the resettlement programme.
In the United States, several right-wing Republicans, including presidential candidate Donald Trump, have spoken out against accepting young, male asylum seekers, as well. Speaking to Yahoo News in November, Trump linked young, male refugees to ISIL: “You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.”
According to the European Union, an estimated 55 percent of asylum seekers 13 or younger who applied in 2015 were male, while around 80 percent of those aged between 14 and 34 were male. Of those who have arrived by boat in Europe by May of this year, less than half – 45 percent – are men, while children and women constitute 35 percent and 20 percent respectively, according to the UNHCR.
Ahmad Nazir Atassi, a history professor at Louisiana Tech University in the United States, explains that many Syrian males first make the perilous journey to Europe alone with the hope of bringing their families through unification programmes. They go ahead in order to spare more vulnerable groups – such as women and children – the dangerous and physically exhausting trek.
“Usually deportation is … proposed and this time deportation can be masked by a ‘loftier cause’, which is resolving the ongoing civil war in Syria,” he tells Al Jazeera. “I doubt any of these politicians have the slightest idea as to where to send these male refugees to fight and on which side …. Those who wanted to fight are already fighting.”
Behind the rhetoric lies deep-seated colonial misconceptions of Syrians and Arabs at large, Atassi argues, pointing to the media and popular discourse following the events in Cologne. “[T]he pattern is well known in colonial theory. It is the perceived sexual threat posed by the colonised males.”
Conscientious objectors such as Adham reject the notion that young men have an obligation to spill yet more blood in a war they feel is increasingly dominated by parties that do not represent their dreams and desires for Syria’s future.
Adham explains that the possibility of being forced to fight was enough to make him spend his last 2,000 euros ($2,270) to reach Germany and apply for asylum. “We grew up together and live together in the same neighbourhoods only to fight and kill each other.”
In 2015, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 70,000 had dodged the draft or deserted from the army since 2011. In February, Assad announced a presidential pardon for army deserters and others accused of being military service violators. In practice, however, rights groups and defectors say amnesty has not been implemented.
Rights groups also reject the notion that young men should be denied asylum on the grounds that they are of military age. “These politicians’ comments are purely populist political statements and have nothing to do with international refugee law,” says Lydia Gall, a lawyer and researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Conscientious objection could be a reason for asylum, and especially in a state like Syria, where we know people are being detained for refusing to serve in the army,” Gall adds. “Syrians could face inhumane and degrading treatment in prisons and the risk of bodily harm and death.”
Samer, a 29-year-old from the government-controlled Jaramana area of Damascus, delayed his mandatory military conscription for as long as possible. But after finishing his master’s degree in December, recruitment officers informed him that he would no longer be exempt from service.
Like Adham, Samer asked not to provide his family name because his relatives still live in government-controlled areas.
Though gentle-mannered, Samer speaks passionately of Syria and his hopes for an end to the ongoing violence, which has turned more than 4.8 million people into refugees and left another 6.5 million internally displaced within the borders of the country.
Throughout the civil war, Samer and his wife volunteered in the Syrian Red Crescent and other humanitarian organisations to work with people displaced by the fighting. “Killing has become obligatory in our country,” he says, shaking his head sadly. “If you don’t serve, the government will label you as a wanted man.”
For Samer and others like him, evading military service became increasingly difficult as the government grew more desperate for soldiers. Every time he passed a checkpoint, he risked being arrested and sent to the military. “They have our names at the checkpoints, and the country is at war,” he explains.
Of the 65,000 people who were forcibly disappeared since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, at least 58,000 were civilians, according to a November 2015 report published by Amnesty International. These disappearances often take place at checkpoints, when soldiers remove people wanted for interrogation or arrest and whisk them away to detention centres.
“The country is at war, so going [to fight] means you’ll lose everything – your life, your family, your future. Killing each other has led us to losing our country, our dignity,” Samer adds. “Many young men leave and never return. This war is bigger than us.”
A few days before the new year, Samer and his wife fled to Lebanon. From there, they travelled to Turkey and voyaged by sea and land through Greece and the Balkans before arriving in Germany several weeks later.
Back in his room, Adham says the only way to stop the bloodletting in Syria is for more young men to follow in the footsteps of conscientious objectors. “I hope we learn something new here [in Germany] to build up our country again. If the war stops and they need a lot of young men to build up the country, I will be the first to go back.”
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