25th Sep 2018


Syria refugees: Nowhere to go

  • Syrian family arriving in Germany (Photo: iom.int)

This Saturday (20 June), on World Refugee Day, there will be much well-deserved appreciation of Syria’s neighbours for hosting nearly 4 million refugees.

But with thousands more desperate people at the border, and many others still trapped inside Syria, including 7.6 million internally displaced people, the prospects of escaping the country are becoming ever more difficult.

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  • Jordan: Red dots show tent refugees living in desert (Photo: hrw.org)

There is an urgent need for Europe to help.

Facing extreme danger, Syrians have joined the unprecedented numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants making the dangerous boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

So far this year, at least 1,850 people have drowned. Of the estimated 103,000 who reached EU shores by mid-June, 60 percent came from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria.

All of them are countries ravaged by armed conflict or grave human rights violations, according to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.

The governments of wealthier and more stable countries outside Syria’s immediate neighbourhood need to help the countries on Syria’s borders so that they keep their doors open. That starts by not closing their own doors.

Syria’s neighbours are increasingly restricting entry of Syrian asylum seekers.

Jordan, host to about 630,000 Syrian refugees, says it has reached its limit. Since late March, it has restricted entry at the last open section of the border.

We’ve seen satellite images showing tents springing up in remote desert areas just inside Jordan’s border, as Jordanian authorities prevented Syrians from going to safer ground.

International aid workers say the tent people have limited access to food, water, and medical assistance.

Lebanon, until last year the most open country to Syrian refugees, has introduced regulations limiting access at its border.

Well-grounded fear of persecution is no longer sufficient basis for entry. You now have to demonstrate “extreme humanitarian” need and Lebanese border authorities rarely make the exception.


Consider Lebanon’s burden: 1.2 million Syrian refugees have come in during the past four years.

This is on top of previous mass arrivals of Iraqi refugees in the 1990s and 2000s and of Palestinian refugees, who began coming in 1948. Refugees are now about one third of its population.

Bottlenecks are also being reported on Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

Syria’s eastern border with Iraq, a country obliterated by ISIS, and its south-west border, sealed by Israel, aren’t viable options.

No one underestimates the enormity of the refugee burden for countries like Lebanon and Jordan.

Rejecting asylum seekers at the border and pushing them back to life-threatening danger is not the answer.

But it’s clear the burden needs to be shared beyond this region.

The European Union’s 23 April statement, following its special summit on the Mediterranean crisis, said it would strengthen its presence at sea “to fight the traffickers” and use force to destroy vessels before they can be used to transport migrants.

This won’t help either Syrian people or Syria’s overburdened neighbors.

The EU is belatedly doing more to rescue boats in distress in the Mediterranean. That is helpful, but not sufficient.

Also needed is humanitarian assistance for people still in conflict zones. The UN has called for $8.4 billion this year to meet the needs of 18 million people affected by the Syrian crisis.

That appeal is 44 percent funded, including $1.83 billion from the EU.


Yes, $8.4 billion is a mind-boggling number. But 130,000 isn't.

That is the number of Syrian refugees the UNHCR has called on governments to resettle from among the 4 million Syrian refugees.

So far, governments have offered to resettle fewer than 90,000. EU members have pledged to offer about 45,000 places.

Resettlement not only saves lives, but also demonstrates solidarity with countries on the front lines.

The willingness of France and other countries to resettle refugees - at a pace and number consistent with the need - could be the difference between open or closed borders around Syria.

It could be the difference between life and death.

Bill Frelick is refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch

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