Last Friday, UNHCR said the number of Syrian refugees had topped 3 million, making them the world’s largest refugee population. One out of every eight Syrians has now fled the country.
UNHCR has repeatedly asked the international donor community to help relieve the burden on Syria’s neighboring countries – namely Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon – who currently host 96 percent of the Syrian refugee population.
With more than $1.3 billion in aid contributions in 2013, European countries are, collectively, the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to these countries, yet Europe itself hosts just 123,600 Syrian refugees, about 4 percent of the total number.
We asked Cynthia Orchard, who recently co-authored a report for the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre on the situation, to explain why the current European Union policy of containing the refugee crisis to Syria’s neighboring countries is not sustainable. The report was supervised by Dawn Chatty, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, and co-authored by Andrew Miller.
Syria Deeply: What has been the response of European countries to the refugee crisis in the Syrian region? How does it vary per country?
Cynthia Orchard: The primary aim of the European response to the refugee crisis has been containment in the countries neighboring Syria – with some European countries investing significant funding in the provision of humanitarian aid – and to reinforce Europe’s borders.
Each of Syria’s neighboring countries individually hosts more refugees from Syria than all of Europe combined. Almost a quarter of the population of Lebanon is now made up of Syrian refugees. People who are already living in poverty are now shouldering the burden of this crisis.
Syrians are the largest group of asylum seekers in Europe. In 2013, 50,470 Syrians submitted asylum applications in the E.U. With no end in sight for the conflict, European countries are beginning to respond to UNHCR’s call for more resettlement or humanitarian admission for Syrian refugees.
There are 17 European countries that have set up resettlement programs for Syrian refugees. Most of them are doing it in collaboration with UNHCR. The problem is, the numbers of places they are offering are limited and vary per country. There are three main reasons they aren’t offering more slots: resources, anti-immigration sentiment and security concerns.
I think anti-immigrant sentiment and the influence this has on politics is the most influential of these factors.
With respect to security, countries run security checks when they admit refugees through resettlement or humanitarian admission programs, and I’m not aware of instances in which refugees resettled through these programs have posed security threats.
With respect to funding/resources, of course, each country’s leaders must decide on budgetary allocations. My view is that funding could be found if the political will existed to expand resettlement and humanitarian admission programs. In some countries that have been hardest hit by economic recessions, there may be a real inability to fund resettlement. However, there is also an E.U. fund that provides assistance to countries for their resettlement programs.
Leading the way, Germany pledged admission to 20,000 refugees from Syria via its Temporary Humanitarian Admission Program, through which approximately 6,000 refugees had arrived in Germany in mid-2014. Additionally, it has a program for private sponsorships that has already benefited 5,500 Syrian refugees.
For other countries, the figures vary widely. Liechtenstein has confirmed four pledges for admission, Portugal 23, Sweden 1,200, Norway 1,000 and Austria 1,500.
Germany and Sweden have both been much more proactive in saying that other countries need to react in a better way. Germany and Sweden are the top destinations for Syrian asylum seekers, together accounting for more than half of Syrian asylum claims in Europe in 2013.
Syria Deeply: What are the conditions like for refugees once they reach Europe?
Orchard: Only about 4% (123,000) of the refugees from Syria have entered Europe. Most of them had to enter without permission, many risking their lives to do so, because there are very few places offered for legal entry. Hundreds of migrants die in sea journeys to Europe each year, and many more are exploited by smugglers. Italy’s Mare Nostrum sea rescue program saved thousands of lives since it was initiated in 2013.
Bulgaria is one of the first possible entry points into Europe from the countries neighboring Syria. In Bulgaria, refugees are being housed in inadequate accommodations. They have lacked access to healthcare, heating in the wintertime, and adequate food and water. In the U.K. and some other Western countries, they get adequate accommodation and a cash allowance, integration programs that offer language training and social support.
Most countries that have resettlement programs recognize and prioritize family reunification, but they have a limited concept of what constitutes a family. Some acknowledge partnerships other than spouses, but usually only acknowledge dependent children under the age of 18. Some countries have a broader view of family and will allow extended relatives to come with the family.
Most countries offer their resettlement programs through UNHCR because it has the expertise on the ground to deal with the initial registration and processing. UNHCR gives a selection of applications to a country, and then the country will do its own assessment before it admits the refugees. This process can take time. Sweden is quite quick and relatively more efficient in doing this, and can process applications in emergency cases in a week, but some countries take much longer.
Syria Deeply: Your report highlights three recommendations for European response to the crisis**
Orchard: We recommend that European countries implement a Comprehensive Plan of Action for refugees in the countries neighboring Syria.
The first main component is the activation of a coordinated regional temporary protection regime. The E.U. would be involved in setting a harmonized policy for all participating E.U. countries. The first step, besides getting the countries in the E.U. on board, would be designating Syrians (and refugees of other nationalities or stateless people who have fled Syria) as a special group who deserve temporary protection in Europe. They would then set a budget and parameters for how many people they would let in through the program, and how they would be allocated per country. The participating countries would need to set up reception facilities, basic food and living allowance, healthcare, interpreters etc. Hopefully they could coordinate with UNHCR to process the applications, to allow Syrians to enter Europe.
Temporary protection would likely be for one or two years initially, and then based on what is happening in Syria, the temporary protection regime could end or be extended. It would apply to people who are currently in countries neighboring Syria and those who make their own way to Europe. Instead of going through the normal asylum channels, there would be a special procedure for them to claim temporary protection. If it was established that they were Syrian, they would in most cases automatically be granted temporary protection without going through the normal asylum procedure.
The second part of the plan would be expanded resettlement programs allowing entry into Europe for refugees currently in the countries neighboring Syria, with particular focus on clearing the backlog of refugees (of any nationality) already approved for resettlement.
The third component would be the development of other legal routes of entry into European countries. For a start, other European nations could follow Germany’s example of private sponsorhips. They could re-look into expanding family reunification laws, broaden their view on what constitutes as family, provide academic scholarships, fellowships and work and training programs that could be arranged in partnership with private businesses, universities and NGOs. Bringing in extended families would allow for refugees to find support systems. It’s much easier for them to integrate if they have family members in country who are able to help them out.
It’s important to remember that this refugee crisis is about people, many of them children, who just want to live the best life they can, and who have been forced to leave their homes because of the war in Syria.