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A German court has ruled that Syrian men coming from rebel-held areas will be recognized as refugees. Two men who escaped conscription in Syria talk about why they fled and the danger they would face upon returning.
Zuhair Halaa is 28 years old. A dentist by profession, the Syrian left Damascus several years ago for Lebanon, then Egypt, before finally crossing the Mediterranean and arriving in Germany in 2015.
Like many other Sunni Syrians, Zuhair was supposed to be conscripted into the army once he graduated. "When you are a young man in Syria, you finish your school and then go to university. If I'm enrolled at a university, I can defer my military conscription," he tells InfoMigrants.
Zain Mohammed, a 23-year-old Sunni Syrian from Aleppo, also fled to Germany to escape military service. "Young men in Syria have a big problem. Even if you are 40 years old, you can be taken away and asked to fight with the army," he says. "I did not want to work in the army because I did not want to use weapons and shoot someone who hadn’t hurt me in any way."
Syria's constitution has declared military service "a sacred duty" regulated by law. It is mandatory for all Syrian males over the age of 18. Men can defer their conscription if they go to university or suffer from health problems or would like to study further - as in the case of Zuhair.
"I had a choice and could have enrolled into a Masters' course," he says. "However, there is the danger that I will be sent to the military anyway, even though I am registered. It could be that they intercept me on the street and say, 'Even if you're at university, even if you are a dentist, we will take you with us.'"
Zuhair says he knows a couple of young men who were taken away by officers working in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army. "These people have vanished now," he tells InfoMigrants. "They are either in jail or fighting with the army. I don’t have any contact with them any more, but people who are arrested, especially Sunnis, are sent to regions where fighting is particularly bad," he adds.
"Because I was studying, I didn't have to join the army, but I finished my studies in 2012, so I had to leave. I went to Lebanon, from there to Egypt and finally arrived here [in Germany]," he adds.
Going back not an option
Luckily for Zuhair, he was recognized almost immediately as a refugee when he came to Germany two years ago. Many other Syrians, who fled to Germany, received only subsidiary protection - a temporary visa for up to three years that limited their ability to work and also did not let them get their families from Syria.
Several Syrian men, whose asylum requests have been rejected in Germany, have appealed against the decision in local courts. The latest appeal was made by a group of three Syrian men, all from the city of Homs. They traveled to Germany in late 2015 and applied for asylum. However, their applications were rejected on the grounds that the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees did not see any evidence of possible political persecution if the men went back to their countries.
The court of Kassel, which decided on the request, ruled against the BAMF's reasons for rejection, saying that the current situation in Syria meant that the returnees would face arrest and torture upon their return to the country, especially since they were from rebel-held areas or areas formerly under the control of people opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. The judges also said that conflict had intensified in the country and "the Syrian state looked at illegal travel, stay and application of asylum in a western country would be seen in the meantime as critical of the regime."
"If I were to go back now, it would be dangerous," Zuhair says. "They need me and I have completed university and cannot defer military conscription anymore. They would arrest me immediately upon landing in Syria," he explains.
Like Zuhair, Zain Mohammed from Aleppo has no desire to go back. Since his arrival in Germany in 2015, Zain has learnt enough German to enroll in a university and complete a course in photography and design. His legal status as a refugee gives him the right to work and establish himself in Cologne, where he lives. "If I went back now, it would be catastrophic for me. To be honest, my fate would be unknown."