A+ Crossing Borders

Who is responsible for refugees?

7 Mins read

By Ariadna Cañameras, Begoña González and Júlia Reñé


The world needs help. In 2014 – a year that saw the highest level of refugees – the 1.8 million people waiting to be ‘processed’ form only a small part of the 59.5 million displaced people worldwide, say the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

This figure represents a 54 per cent increase in those seeking asylum worldwide, the highest number in the last 15 years.

In the area most affected, the people who have left Syria have sought protection in neighbouring countries.

According to a recent UN study, countries such as Turkey, (who have taken 2.5 million people), Lebanon (nearly 1.1 million), Jordan (over 630 thousand), Iraq (245 thousand) and Egypt (117 thousand) adding up to 95 per cent of the people leaving.

According to these figures the Syrian exodus has made Turkey into the world’s number one recipient of refugees, a title previously held by Pakistan, alongside with Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordon.

Out of these nations, Lebanon has become the world’s largest host of Syrian nationals, with one in four of the population being from there.

What the statistics don’t tell

The Mustafa family, one the many families comprising of a lone father with children, have been in Barcelona for the last two years after risking their lives to get there.

From Syria, they travelled to Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco and then finally onto Spain after a period in the north African Spanish territory Melilla where they paid a hefty ‘tariff’ of around 500 Euros for each child and 2,000 Euros for an adult.

A long and torturous journey it was made even harder by stints in hospitals tending to the condition of one of their group members, Manar.

Manar Mustafa is living proof that the more one waits, the more one’s life becomes in jeopardy, and as the story goes: ‘you don’t always get a second chance.’

Manar arrived in Barcelona with her husband and one of her daughters, while the rest of her family remained elsewhere.

But Spain doesn’t hold much hope for the Mustafas. They are not one of 18 people of the 16,000 refugees promised asylum last summer in Italy and Greece – they are part of those who arrived illegally.

Official response

Defending the government position, there have been many who have justified the explanation that “the causes of this misery belongs to others” in a number of debates and public speeches.

The official response to the delay in dealing with asylum points to the poor functioning of identification points and the preference refugees have in going to other countries, such as Germany or Sweden, before arriving on Spanish territory.

33 year-old Manar doesn’t fit this picture. Gathering her strength after five year’s upheaval, she has not given up, despite being broken.

She, like Syria, is a place destroyed, the mother of four from the city of Homs with 90 per cent of her body covered in first degree burns from a bomb that fell on her house. She is a product of all that has happened to her up to this point.

[pullquote align=”right”]Everyone says they want to help, but in the end they do nothing.[/pullquote]

And today, two years on from her long and painful departure from her beloved Syria, Manar lives cheek by jowl with 10 other members of the Mustafa family in the Raval district of Barcelona, where she worries about a seemingly never-ending list of headaches.

She does not know the whereabouts or condition of three of her sons who are unaccounted for (at this precise moment she doesn’t know if they are dead or in a refugee camp in Lebanon).

They did however managed to bring her only daughter with them, Madeha, a five year old. When reunited with her mother – and in her mother’s moment of need – the girl didn’t recognise her own parent, staring at her suspiciously, before literally running into the arms of her aunties.


To make good on its promise, Spain will have to speed-up the processing of more than 1,800 refugees a month from now until December – something that is seen as near impossible.

Facing up to this, the coalition President, Mariano Rajoy admits that the process will be “exasperatingly long, despite speeding-up in the last few weeks.”

In the historical context of the scale of this crisis, the intransigence of the Spanish is unjustifiable. It’s not the first time Spain has resettled people: 2,000 Vietnamese in the ‘80s, 2,500 Bosnians and 1,500 Albanians in the ‘90s – all done successfully without a problem.

There are many measures open to the President to aid refugees without the approval of Europe. One way is to mobilise a mission to refugee camps outside of the EU, in collaboration with NGOs, to offer large groups of people safety.

Maria Tejada, spokesperson of the NGO Asociación Comisión Católica Española de Migración (the Spanish Catholic Commission Association on Migration or ACCEM) insists: “it’s a long term and secure solution. The only reason it’s not been done yet is a clear lack of political will to respond to the emergency.”

“Everyone says they want to help, but in the end they do nothing,” says Manar, sceptical of change after being in this situation for two years in Spain.


Assured that that everything is “fine” when she asks about her medical condition, she’s annoyed that the Hospital Vall d’Hebron have cancelled some of her consultations, and that her facial reconstruction treatment is not going as speedily as she’d like.

But there are some things that are going better: her daughter now lets her mother cuddle her, realising the disfigured bomb-damaged face is the face of her mother’s and one of her sons was identified and brought back from a refugee camp in Lebanon by the UN.

The reuniting of Manar with her sons was only possible, according to UNHCR spokesperson Maria Jesus Vega, because they are trying to give instructions to those receiving, giving and resolving applications a “little more flexibility.”

One the major problems with the sharing and quotas of refugees is the separation of families. In Spain a family can only be kept together if it has a young child or an elderly parent – something that could be changed by government policy to give more flexibility in these circumstances.

Another huge measure that would save the death at sea of many refugees is related to visas. Syrian citizens have to gain authorisation, which includes the crossing of national airspace, since Zapatero’s government imposed visas for travel in 2011.

The current government could easily revoke this decision: it has the sovereign authority to do so, even under the European Commission.

[pullquote align=”right”]The situation forces refugee families into social isolation and poverty, relying on hand-outs from the doors of mosques and churches.[/pullquote]


In addition to this, there is also the possibility of granting a programme of scholarships on a humanitarian basis. This would allow children who end-up in refugee camps to live in Spain and pursue their higher education there.

Such an idea is not just about asylum but also opportunity for the future. To this end, the UNHCR has formally asked the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport for 500 scholarships of this sort. Despite showing interest in the proposal, the government have yet to act on it.

The welcomed distraction for Manar of being able to braid her daughter’s hair comes to an abrupt end when she’s asked about the help she receives for her and the extended Mustafa family.

She recounts a story of forms, paperwork, going from one office to another. The Mustafa family aren’t part of the quota of refugees who are to be formally taken into the city as part of the recent European policy nor are they part of the group who risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean.

After registering their status as seeking asylum, the Mustafa family receive very little financial help from the Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid, or CEAR) and can barely get by.

“On Fridays, the Muslim prayer day, us women get some charity from the mosques, but it’s not enough,” explains Linda, one of the few women in the family who speak Spanish, a skill gained after a year at a Barcelona college.


“We want them to speak to us, and to see what we need,” says one of Walid’s sons, for the moment, one of the few men who organise things among the numerous women in the family.

“Everyone says that they want to help the Syrians, but the reality is that no-one helps us,” continues Manar. By her side, without too much fuss, she draws attention to the letter from the social services office, one that is complicated, cumbersome and lengthy.

[pullquote align=”right”]They do not have the right to completely forget those who are already here while promising help to those who are yet to arrive.[/pullquote]

Some financial help is at hand, but it’s small quantities here and there, and according to them it’s not enough to pay the rent, utilities and food bills. However, it seems the local authority sees it another way.

They maintain that various members of the family have not followed the terms and conditions for those who claim benefits, something that the family deny.

These ‘sine qua non’ conditions for benefits include the taking of children to school, and for adults, attendance of language classes and work experience.

“They have not followed some of the obligations that all of those who seek benefits must follow,” inform the social services department of the Barcelona municipal authority.

Ghassan Saliba, the man responsible for inclusion and diversity at the builders’ union, Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) has spoken up for the plight of the Syrians in Spain.

“Some of the families have been here for a year or more without receiving any recognition. Amid the confusion and misapprehension, they need the resources and they need transparent information to deal with the bureaucracy and confusion,” he insists, adding: “The situation forces refugee families into social isolation and poverty, relying on hand-outs from the doors of mosques and churches.”

According to Saliba, the situation that they find themselves in after more than two years in the city is “evidence of incompetence in resolving the problem and in raising dedicated support to refugee families who already reside in Catalonia.

They do not have the right to completely forget those who are already here while promising help to those who are yet to arrive.”




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