12/23/2014 07:04 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

This Is What It's Like to Flee to Europe With Syrians


The journalist Wolfgang Bauer and the photographer Stanislav Krupar accompanied Syrian refugees from their hiding spots in Egypt on a refugee boat to Europe. The journalists grew beards and acquired new identities. The traffickers could not know who they really were. The transit failed; they were arrested by Egyptian police on Nelson Island -- and deported as Europeans. Some of the other refugees later made the crossing. And they called Bauer. If you believe their trouble with the authorities ended in Europe, you are wrong.

This article is an excerpt from the book "Over the Ocean: Fleeing to Europe with Syrians, a Report," by Wolfgang Bauer, Edition Suhrkamp.

* * *

Across the Mediterranean, on the other side of the Alps, my phone rings. After the time I spent in Egypt and my deportation to Turkey, I have been taking a little break. Four weeks have passed since my return. I'm back at my desk, working on different projects again. I answer the phone.

"We made it," Alaa says into the cell phone. "We are on an Italian combat vessel. Next to me is Hussan. You should see him: He's grinning from ear to ear."

"This is how a journalist who writes about human traffickers suddenly became a human trafficker himself."

This is how a journalist who writes about human traffickers suddenly became a human trafficker himself.

Our laws are supposed to protect us, the people, and to improve our society. But sometimes, our laws endanger people and make our society worse. Are you supposed to obey these laws in that case?

"We will help you," photographer Stanislav Krupar and I had promised the pair of brothers in jail. "When you reach Italy, we will pick you up." We wanted to prevent them from trusting criminals with their lives again. Prevent Alaa, Hussan and Baschar from risking their lives again. With this promise, we are violating the law. We are going to transport people without valid entry documents, without valid visas, through Europe. This has very little to do with heroism but a lot to do with not losing self-respect.

Alaa and Hussan were able to break through the outer borders of the EU, but they still had to travel across Europe. The continent, which has become a fortress against outsiders in recent years, is divided into two security zones on the inside, the North and the South. The former is protected by the Mediterranean. Like a moat, it shields the refuge of the rich countries from the poor ones; it separates the people living in safety from those living in war zones. If you have overcome this hurdle, soon enough you will encounter the second one: the Alps. Specifically, the Gotthard Pass and the Brenner Pass.

The street which Alaa and Hussan are too afraid to walk on in Milan, either at night or during the day, the alley that houses their hiding spot, is dark and almost devoid of people. I park the brand new rental BMW with an uneasy feeling; it is just past midnight.

One single bar is open; in front of its entrance a group of drunken young men is beating a solitary, defenseless man.

"It's not a safe area," Rafik, 26, says. He's the brother of Alaa and Hussan, who led me and Stanislav Krupar here. He's the bravest one in the family. He was the first to dare cross the ocean, the one who made it to Italy by boat and then to Sweden last year. There, he lives as a legal refugee and is allowed to travel Europe legally. When Alaa called him from Sicily he came to Milan. Rafik feels responsible for his brothers' safe transit to Sweden.

We walk hastily along the street. Rafik walks first; worried we might be seen by residents, worried that the BMW might get stolen. We disappear into a house entrance, hurry up the narrow stairway. An Egyptian rents the apartment at an extortive price to illegal immigrants, to the tune of 150 euros per night. He can't find out about us.

Alaa opens the door and ushers us into the shack made up of two small rooms. It is our first encounter after our deportation from Egypt. He has lost several kilos, seems very exhausted after spending days on the boat. His skin is tight on his face. He is nervous. As always, all the worries land on Alaa's shoulders -- while his younger brother Hussan is sleeping.

We stay only briefly, planning to cross the Alps tomorrow morning. I hand them the dark suits a friend let me borrow. They are not supposed to look like refugees on tomorrow's trip, at least not at first sight. On second glance, you can always make out illegal immigrants: you can tell by the fear in their eyes.

Italian police let them escape from the camp in Sicily after only one night, just like almost everybody who came across the ocean with them. The Italian government is boycotting European asylum laws. It doesn't want to cover the costs of the big mass flight from the South all alone. That's why Alaa and Hussan were not fingerprinted. Italy wants to get rid of them; Italy doesn't want to have to pay for them. Then, on the train from Sicily to Milan, Alaa saw familiar faces everywhere. Almost all of them were Syrians, sitting in train compartments, napping, with their heads resting on the windows, almost all passengers of the "Al Basam."

Only the trafficker captain and the crew did not make it on the train. They were arrested at the harbor, because one of the refugees secretly informed the authorities about them. The skipper had been too ruthless.


The morning on which we leave Milan is murky, the roads are congested. The three Syrians are perched in the backseat, dressed in their ill-fitting suits. We have left Rafik, their brother, behind in the city. He will return to Sweden in the evening. During the first kilometers of the drive Alaa tells us a lot, about the boats and the sea. Hussan and Baschar fall fast asleep again. They were barely able to sleep for so many days. From Po Valley we drive over the Alps. I made the decision to travel through Austria. The way through Switzerland is shorter, admittedly; however, we heard the borders there are still patrolled strictly. Smooth vineyards unroll around us, and then there are steep sloping meadows, dark forests, walls of rock. With every kilometer it gets colder. The last bits of snow lie on the slopes. Hussan awakes and stares silently at the rugged alpine world. Never before has the 20-year-old seen such heights.

At the gas stations, the three of them stay in the car for fear of encountering traveling police units at rest areas. We count down the distance markers out loud: 240 kilometers, 210 kilometers, 110 kilometers, 50 kilometers, 22 kilometers, 9 kilometers, and then suddenly the border has disappeared. We have crossed it without even realizing it. There is no barrier, no painted line that demarcates where Italy becomes the Republic of Austria.

"They all tell the truth, which is that nothing was paid. 'Why are you protecting this man?' the translator asks Hussan."

"Was that the border?" Alaa asks, confused. The traffic signs change colors -- this is Austria. We high-five, drive down the Brenner highway down to the valley, to Innsbruck, pass one last annoying toll plaza, pay €10.50 again -- and then a patrol car of the Innsbruck Federal Police appears, just before our exit.

One officer bends down into our car. "Passports, please."

I get arrested for the second time in one month. In this case, too, I am spared the handcuffs. They search the BMW, seize my cellphone. I'm separated from the rest of the group.

"We have a refugee smuggler here," the inspector reports to his operations center via radio. I'm considered an offender, since I was behind the wheel. Two officers in plainclothes march me off. I hold my hand out to them, but they don't shake it.

"It's still my decision whose hand I shake," one of them grumbles.

"You're in deep shit," the other one says.

Without a word they drive me down the Brenner Pass towards the police headquarters in Innsbruck. There, they take away my shoes and belt and lock me into a detention cell. To them, they demonstrate, I am now a criminal on the same level as a kidnapper or murderer.

We knew that something like this could happen. According to Austrian law, the offense of smuggling humans is punishable with up to five years in prison -- if practiced professionally, or if a "larger number of foreigners" have been brought into the country. I know I will not go to prison because neither is the case. But I'm still nervous. After all, I don't know how long it will take the Austrian police officers to believe me.

I spend the afternoon in different cells. After the detention cell I am taken to the block for those in detention awaiting trial. For two hours I wait in a transition cell, two by two meters big, windowless, with a slot in the ceiling through which I'm occasionally asked for personal information. From this transition cell an officer takes me to cell 46. He thrusts some bedding into my hands and announces dinner. Two slices of bread and two soft-boiled eggs.

What I would give now for one of Amar's Xanax pills.


Alaa and the other two, as they tell me later, are interrogated separately at the police headquarters in Innsbruck. A translator originally from Egypt is brought in. He spends the longest time with Hussan, as he can sense he is the most fearful one. "Tell us the truth," the translator demands. "How much did you pay the trafficker?"

They all tell the truth, which is that nothing was paid.

"Why are you protecting this man?" the translator asks Hussan.

The police employee offers to take them all over the Alps to Germany himself -- if Hussan incriminated the trafficker, me.

"That's exactly what I did yesterday for a Syrian family we arrested," the translator says. The Austrian police officers are sitting right next to them and cannot follow the interrogation conducted in Arabic, including its threats and lies.

"They were only doing their job, the inspectors say. Their job is a thankless one."

A few hours later, the refugees are driven back to the Brenner Pass in a police car. Prior to that they had had to pay a fine of 300 euros for crossing the border illegally. The Austrians take their fingerprints but assure them the information would not be sent to EURODAC, the central EU data bank for asylum seekers. Austria doesn't want them either. The data was only going to be recorded in the regular police database, which serves the purpose of the general fight against crime. At the Brenner Pass, the three of them are handed over to the Italian police. There, the officer in charge gives them two options.

They can take the train to Austria. He even finds two connections to Germany for them. Of those connections, he knows that no identity checks are being conducted during the transition between guard shifts. He writes this information on a piece of paper and hands this paper over to Alaa in a cheery fashion.

Or, the customs officer says, you take the train to Milan.

They choose Milan because they don't want to travel over the mountains again. They call their brother Rafik, who quickly cancels his flight and picks them up at the central station of the city early the next day -- with a new plan.

I'm being released in the evening as the investigators cannot find any indications of "commercial human trafficking." I receive my belt, shoes and cellphone back. They were only doing their job, the inspectors say. Their job is a thankless one. They tell me how frustrating their job is these days, how many refugees were coming over the Brenner now.

"We arrest them, take them to the border and a few hours later they are back here again."

I'm asked to sign a form that confirms that I received a sufficient amount of drinking water while in the cell and am free to go afterwards. Together with the photographer, I continue the drive to Germany, this time with an empty back seat.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post Germany and was translated into English.

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