After Libya, Syria: Towards a new refugee crisis on the borders of Europe?

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For the second time in less than a year an acute refugee crisis is looming in Europe’s neighbourhood. Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012 have several features in common. In both cases, a civilian population has been exposed to a war which has seen rebels opposing the regular army. In both cases, a sizeable foreign population – between fewer than 100,000 and more than 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria according to estimates, as compared with around 1.5 million migrant workers in Libya on the eve of the 2011 uprisings – have had to flee from danger. In both cases, these populations cross a land border to find refuge in a neighbouring country. Likewise in both cases, only the Mediterranean separates Europe from the theatre of operations. In 2011, the response of the European Union and its Member States to the influx of refugees at Libya’s borders was limited, to say the least, by comparison with the massive solidarity shown by Libya’s African neighbours. Will this happen again in 2012 with Syria? Several European States have spoken up in the search for a political solution in Syria. But will they take part in addressing the emergency created by a new refugee crisis, a crisis in which all the concerned states are linked with the EU by association agreements?

As UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan warned, while visiting Syrian refugee camps in Turkey on 10 April, displacement of people caused by unrest in Syria should not be overlooked. UNHCR, the international refugee agency, has already recorded (12 April 2012) 44,570 Syrian refugees in bordering countries: 24,674 in Turkey; 10,386 in Lebanon; 8,270 in Jordan; and 1,240 in Iraq. [1] These numbers do not include either Syrian refugees, who are not registered with UNHCR, those who left for countries that do not border Syria (e.g. Arab Gulf States), or Iraqis in Syria who returned to Iraq or found shelter in another country. Non-registered refugees are probably present only in small numbers in Turkey, where from the outset the State jointly managed the crisis with UNHCR. But likely a majority of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are not registered. In Jordan the Governor of Zarqa (the governorate bordering Syria) estimates that 100,000 Syrians have been displaced to his country[2]. And in Lebanon UNHCR itself assesses that refugees from Syria number 20,000 of whom 7,500 would be unrecorded refugees sheltered in regions where UNHCR is not operating, in particular the Beqaa Valley and Beirut.[3]  

Syrian refugees move with their whole families and they rapidly risk becoming destitute in the country where they find first asylum. Males and females are in equal numbers and half of them are children and adolescents (48%) with 17% at pre-school age (0-4 years) and 31% at school age (5-17 years).[4]  In this context, their access to basic resources (food, clothing, etc.), to decent housing and to public services (health, school) puts enormous strain on the receiving society as well as on the refugees themselves. As soon as the money they could take with them in their flight dries up access to employment will become the prime issue.

Syria’s neighbours (with the exception of Israel) have not, to date, restricted the access of Syrian refugees to their territory. However, they manage the inflow of refugees differently. InTurkey, Syrian refugees have been regrouped into nine camps managed by the Turkish authorities dispersed in the provinces ofGaziantep, Kilis, Hatay, and Sanliurfa along the border. In contrast, in the other countries, the refugees have settled in inhabited districts (towns and villages) where they are hosted by relatives, accommodated by local communities, or, alternatively, where they are forced to rent a house.

In Turkey, medical care is provided in the camps or, if necessary, in public hospitals in Antalya. In addition, 68 school classes have been created with Arabic-speaking professors[5]. UNHCR supports the Turkish government, as well as other international organisations and the Turkish Red Crescent Society. Since February, UNHCR has been permanently present in Hatay to support the government. To date, Turkey has not asked for any additional international assistance. But it would consider doing so if the influx of refugees went on. According to the Turkish liberal newspaper Milliyet, 9. April 2012, if the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey exceeded 50,000, Ankara would consider the creation  of  “humanitarian corridors” at the border, protected by the Turkish army[6].

In Lebanonand Jordan, the refugees’ situation varies greatly from one region to another. UNHCR and the Lebanese Higher Relief Committee provide assistance to the refugees, but their mandate is limited to North Lebanon, and they cannot intervene in the rest of the country. In Jordan, UNCHR works together with other UN agencies and with local NGOs, in particular with the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO). However, in those two countries, assistance to refugees depends largely on local communities and governments which guarantee free access to public services including hospitals for wounded refugees, and schools. However, the pressure exerted at the local level by the presence of a rising number of refugees is getting greater and greater especially in communities with limited resources. In particular, schooling raises several problems. The Jordanian and Lebanese governments have admitted Syrian children in the local schools. But schooling rates are low, especially in Lebanon where they are estimated to be 52% at primary, and 9% at the secondary level. [7]

The situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon raises specific issues. Relations between Lebanon and Syria are complex at the economic and political levels. Lebanon already hosts several hundred  thousand Syrian workers. Moreover, Syrian and Lebanese populations living in the areas close to the border, especially in the North, are traditionally linked by close familial, social and economic ties. Ultimately, the Lebanese government is dominated by the 8 of March Movement, which included Hezbollah and the parties supporting the strategic alliance with Syria against Israel; while the Movement of March 14 gathering parties opposed to Bachar al-Assad regime is in opposition. Thus, the Syrian regime can count on the support of the Lebanese government, to a certain extent, while the Syrian insurgents, in particular the Free Syrian Army, are backed, directly and indirectly, by the Lebanese opposition, in particular its Sunni component.

The situation in Syria not only threatens Syrians, but also many migrants and refugees already present in Syrian territory, whose number is difficult to assess. While Syria is considered the main host country for Iraqi refugees, these have never been properly recorded. There have been claimed to be one million, according to a highly controversial estimate of the Syrian government, once endorsed by UNHCR[8]. In addition, there are migrant workers of various nationalities, whose numbers vary from 80,000 to 150,000[9]. Moreover, Syria not being part of the Geneva Convention on Refugees of 1951, many people who would be refugees in another context live there as economic migrants.

So far, third-country nationals who have crossed the Syrian border to neighbouring countries have not contacted any UN agency[10]. Yet, their protection could later on become an issue. Jordan and Lebanon have not signed the Geneva Convention on refugees. Turkey is a party to the Convention, but has not adopted its 1967 protocol which would lift the geographical reservation limiting its implementation to European nationals. Refugees are thus unlikely to find there the protection they need and would have little chance of integrating locally should the crisis last. The situation seems even more complex in Lebanon where most refugees entered illegally, due to border crossing risks (Syrian army checks, mines) and since some refugees are also combatants in the Free Syrian Army.[11]

To face the situation in the coming months in a coordinated and consistent way, UNHCR appointed a regional coordinator for Syrian refugees last March[12] and presented a regional Action Plan[13], in coordination with seven UN agencies, twenty seven national and international NGOs and the receiving countries. This plan is based on estimations according to which, in the next six months, assistance will be needed for about 100,000 persons in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The aim of this Plan is to guarantee that Syrian and foreign nationals fleeing Syria will have access to the neighbouring states and to international protection, that their basic needs will be met and so as to consider the measures to be taken in case of massive flows of people. A call for 84 million dollars was launched on 23 March to fund this plan[14].

Europe has a crucial role to play, not only in finding a solution to the political situation, but also in supporting the refugees, an issue from which it tends to disengage. The financial aid to the receiving countries is currently a priority. The decision of 22 March to raise EU aid for the victims of the humanitarian crisis in Syria from 3 to 10 million euros is a positive step. But it seems already insufficient as events have overtaken it. This aid aims at funding those people who have been wounded or constrained to flee the violence in the country, and will transit through the European Commission’s humanitarian partners, notably the International Red Cross and UNHCR. [15] In addition, it is important that the Member States do not prevent people fleeing Syria and fearing individual persecutions from acceding to asylum. Regarding the specific situation of Iraqi refugees fleeing Syria, EU member states should facilitate their resettlement, which has been enhanced by the Joint EU resettlement programme for 2013 adopted by the EU last March[16]. They are supposed to pledge by 1 May 2012 to inform the European Commission about the people they wish to resettle, and they will benefit from the financial aid of the European Refugee Fund if this meets the defined priorities, among which are Iraqi refugees in Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

If the receiving countries come to be overwhelmed by the collective flow of people fleeing violence in Syria and if they can no longer offer an appropriate protection, then the EU’s temporary protection should be activated[17] in order to provide a rapid (prima facie) response and to offer solidarity. Will the Member States agree to use this resource? Certainly, they refused to do so in response to the Libyan crisis despite the European Parliament’s and UNHCR’s recommendations.

The MPC Team

[3] Lebanon Weekly Update 06 Apr 2012:

[16] For more information on this topic, please consult the website of the KNOW RESET project :