13 May 2015

Unveiled: the activists helping Syrian refugees seek asylum

Channel 4 News uncovers a network of underground bloggers and activists operating across Europe, who are helping thousands of Syrian refugees desperate for asylum.

The European Commission is due on Wednesday to unveil its EU migration agenda in the wake of hundreds of deaths off the coasts of Libya and Italy as they were trying to make their way to a new life in Europe.

Among the proposals on the table: a quota system for relocation to be distributed among the EU 28 member states – an idea Britain is likely to reject. Some 60,000 people have tried to cross the Mediterranean this year and more than 1,800 migrants have died at sea – 20 times more than those who died in 2014.

Many people are fleeing Syria and Eritrea through Libya, where the migrant trade is worth millions of pounds a year. Out of the 68,000 Syrians – who made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean – 25,700 of them were granted asylum in Germany and 16,800 in Sweden.

Nawal Soufi

The journey to northern Europe however is often difficult with many of the member states reluctant to help out. It is here that a network, known as ‘la rete’, is activated – a group of journalists, bloggers and volunteers working to provide humanitarian support for Syrians arriving in Catania, Italy.

The network is led by 27-year-old Nawal Soufi in Catania. Nawal, who was born in Sicily to Moroccan parents, works as a translator and a freelance journalist. She speaks Arabic fluently.

In 2012, she travelled to Homs and Aleppo to film a documentary on the Syrian civil war and posted numerous YouTube videos from the war-torn country (see below).

Nawal is often referred to as Lady SOS or Guardian Angel on social media and she takes emergency calls around the clock, informing the Italian coastguard when boats are arriving in Catania.

Once refugees arrive safely they are often quietly released by immigration authorities. It is here that Nawal meets them at the local train station and offers them food and accommodation.

SOS Milan

More often than not, however, Catania is only the first port of call for Syrians desperate to reach families in northern Italy. This is where the network is at its most active: 44,000 migrants are believed to have stopped off in Milan in 2014, however only 47 have applied for asylum in Italy.

Here Nawal hands over to Tytty Cherasien – a teacher and blogger born in Israel to a Palestinian-Syrian father and an Israeli mother.

Tytty is also active on social media, however her support is more on the ground within the Syrian community in Milan, helping families with translations and dealing with authorities.

Also active in Milan is freelance writer Sumaya Abdel Qader. Sumaya, who was born in Perugia, to Palestinian parents, often blogs about the Muslim community and integration within schools.

Tytty, told Channel 4 News that the network “filters help” for Syrian families throughout Europe: “I feel as if these people are my brothers and sisters.”

“It’s impossible to say how many people the network looks after, but the need to travel now is greater than ever.”

The Syrian community, in Milan, she says is “very active”, however they often find themselves fighting bureaucracy. “They are given asylum, but not the right to travel Europe.”

SOS Ticino

In Switzerland, the network is managed by Lisa Bosia Mirra, 42, a social worker with 20 years’ experience in helping refugees – mainly and Eritrean and Syrians. Lisa, who is married to an Iraqi refugee, has been working for Swiss NGO SOS Ticino since 2000.

In an interview for swissinfo.ch, Lisa explains how the network in Ticino provides transport, food and supplies: “We need to help all these families – who have travelled from Homs to Libya, then Sicily until arriving on the Swiss border. We usually meet them in Milan, where they are staying in camps.

“Some of them want to reach Switzerland, where they have family… but most of them want to reach Germany or Sweden, where they would be more welcome.”

In the French city of Menton, the network is run by a woman known as Fatima. Fatima, who is believed to be born in Morocco, travels daily across the border to Ventimiglia in Italy. Here, she is said to help refugees cross the border to continue their journey.

Whilst is remains unclear what route the refugees are taking after leaving Italy, it is believed that many of them are attempting to reach Germany and Sweden.

In 2014, Germany had 202,815 people applying for asylum, according to Eurostat. That is more than twice as many as any other EU country. In contrast, the UK had a total of 31,945 applicants last year, six times fewer than the German number.