Can Europe Make It?

Closed eyes, closed borders: EU policy and refugees from Syria

European countries should allow more Syrian refugees to entry Europe legally and safely.

Cynthia Orchard
3 September 2014

There are now nearly 3 million registered refugees from Syria. About 96% of them live in five countries neighbouring Syria – Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Many refugees in those countries live in appalling conditions, without adequate food, water, shelter, healthcare, or other basic necessities of life, and many also face abuse of various types. Some groups, such as Palestinians, face particularly dire circumstances, including being prohibited from entering some countries in the region.

Despite the conditions in these receiving countries, it is laudable that they have opened their borders to many more Syrian refugees than have entered European or other countries. To put this in perspective, each of the neighbouring countries individually hosts more refugees from Syria than all of Europe combined, and refugees from Syria now constitute nearly a quarter of the population of Lebanon.

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. By mid-2014, European countries, apart from Germany, had agreed to admit only about 6,000 refugees from Syria through resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes.

If European countries expect to have any credibility in asking the countries neighbouring Syria to keep their borders open to refugees, they must do more to expand ways for refugees to reach Europe legally and safely. For a start, other European nations could follow Germany’s example. Germany has pledged to admit 20,000 refugees from Syria through a temporary humanitarian admission programme and has already made good progress toward achieving this goal in 2014. Moreover, German states have initiated private sponsorships for refugees from Syria, benefitting approximately 5,500 refugees so far. Additionally or alternatively, European nations could adopt the best elements from the temporary protection programme that Turkey has established to deal with the more than 800,000 refugees from Syria in its territory. European countries could also consider the 2001 EU Temporary Protection Directive, which provides a framework for how temporary protection could be implemented in Europe.

Another additional (or alternative) step, European countries could take would be to expand their refugee resettlement programmes (which differ from temporary protection or humanitarian admission programmes mainly in that resettlement is permanent). Only two European countries, Sweden and Norway, are offering resettlement to 1000 or more Syrian refugees in 2014; most European countries are offering resettlement to 500 or fewer Syrian refugees.

European countries could also consider admitting refugees from Syria through other routes, such as humanitarian visas, special student visas, employment and training visas, and expanded family reunification visas, combined with a relaxation of usual immigration requirements which refugees often cannot meet because they lack the required documents or resources.

Unfortunately, anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the influence this has on elections and political decisions are serious obstacles to European countries expanding refugee admissions. This suggests that the effort to assist refugees from Syria should include a large-scale public awareness programme.

It is not the case that European nations are doing nothing for refugees from Syria. Europe collectively is the largest contributor of humanitarian and development aid to countries near Syria. However, European countries are also spending millions of euros on border control measures, such as building fences along Greece and Bulgaria’s borders with Turkey; these and other resources could be re-directed towards humanitarian admission, resettlement, or other programmes allowing entry into Europe.

In addition to the moral duty to show solidarity and humanity in response to the biggest refugee crisis of our time, there is also a practical imperative to allowing more refugees from Syria into Europe: this refugee crisis is exacerbating the delicate political and religious complexities in the region and could contribute to serious conflict.

On a positive note, change is possible: some European countries which have had terrible records on treatment of Syrian and other refugees, such as Bulgaria and Greece, appear to have begun making serious efforts to improve their asylum systems, with help from EU agencies and UNHCR. In addition, Italy’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ sea rescue programme has saved thousands of lives since it was initiated in 2013 and is another example of how quickly things can improve when there is the will to make change happen. It is to be hoped that European leaders will continue and expand on the progress that has begun, demonstrating the compassion and humanity that represent the best aspects of Europe.

Cynthia Orchard is the author, with Andrew Miller, of the Refugee Studies Centre policy briefing ‘Protection in Europe for refugees from Syria.’

The briefing launches on 10 September at the Oxford Department of International Development. Read more about the launch event:

This policy briefing is accompanied by the Boston University Report ‘Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies, and Global Responsibility Sharing’, by Professor Susan M. Akram, et. al. 

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