Approximately 3 million people have fled armed conflict in Syria in about three and a half years, making this refugee crisis one of the largest ever to have occurred. Most of the refugees – about 96% – remain in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. UNHCR reported in July 2014 that the number of asylum applications by Syrians in Europe had reached 123,600 – about 4% of the total 3 million refugees. In addition, there are approximately 6.5 million people displaced within Syria.
With such high numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons so close to EU borders, and with a large number of refugees from Syria having already entered Europe, the activation of a coordinated temporary protection regime in Europe is overdue. The recent deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, many of whom likely fled the conflict in Syria, illustrate the urgent need to expand safe and legal routes of entry into Europe for people in need of international protection.
Following the uncoordinated response to the refugee crisis generated by conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in 2001, the European Council issued a Temporary Protection Directive (2001/55/EC). Its purpose is to provide a framework and minimum standards for responses to the mass displacement of persons who are unable to return to their country of origin (for example, due to armed conflict).
The Directive applies not only to persons already in Europe, but also contains provisions which permit the entry of displaced persons into Europe. Under Article 2(d), the Directive can apply to a spontaneous movement of a large number of people from a particular country or region or an assisted evacuation into Europe; and under Article 8(3), states should facilitate the entry of eligible persons into their territory, including, for example, by the issuance of visas. UNHCR also issued guidelines on temporary protection and stay in February 2014, which generally align with the Temporary Protection Directive.
The 2001 Temporary Protection Directive has never been activated, but it could be part of a reasonable, compassionate response to the Syrian refugee crisis. If the Temporary Protection Directive were activated, it would work something like this: the European Council would designate the group for whom temporary protection is required (in this case, people who have fled Syria as a result of the armed conflict).
Then participating states would facilitate the entry and granting of temporary protection to people from the designated group; and the designation also would apply to members of the group who entered participating European countries on their own. The potential beneficiaries would undoubtedly be subject to security screening to ensure that people who have committed serious crimes would be excluded from protection.
Those eligible would be granted temporary protection for an initial period of one year, which could be renewed if the circumstances in Syria had not substantially improved. People granted temporary protection under the Directive would be granted permission to work, access to healthcare, education for minors, and could receive assistance with accommodation and social services if needed. They would also be reunited with eligible family members. The group designation could be withdrawn when the circumstances in Syria permitted displaced persons to return home safely or on the European Council’s decision.
This temporary protection regime would be similar in some ways to currently existing refugee resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes, but would offer several advantages. For example: it would not require a status determination procedure (other than to establish that the person was a member of the designated group) as is normally necessary for refugee status, which would reduce the time and resources needed to process beneficiaries of protection; in addition, the programme would be coordinated across Europe, promoting more equitable responsibility-sharing amongst European countries; and finally, the aim would be to process significantly higher numbers of people in need of protection, giving more people the refuge they so desperately need.
Temporary protection should not take the place of asylum. Rather, it should be a measure to ensure the immediate protection of designated groups of people. As confirmed in the Temporary Protection Directive in Paragraph (10) and Articles 4 and 19, persons who are granted temporary protection should be able to apply for and be granted refugee status if they meet the criteria under applicable refugee law (though States could require that beneficiaries wait until their temporary protection status is coming to an end before applying for asylum).
Permanent asylum is necessary for some – especially those whose personal circumstances indicate that they would be persecuted if they returned to their country of origin, even if a sustainable peace were achieved and many people who previously required international protection could return home in safety. Permanent asylum may also be necessary for some refugees for other compelling reasons, such as for those who have suffered severe trauma and are receiving treatment in their new country. It is likely, however, that many of the people who have fled Syria will be able to return to their homeland once the conflict is over and the country has stabilised, and for these people, temporary protection can be considered a reasonable measure.
Temporary protection should not be the only way for refugees from Syria to enter Europe legally and safely. It should be implemented in combination with other measures, including permanent resettlement, humanitarian admission, family reunification, private sponsorships, student scholarships, academic fellowships, and employment and training programmes, all of which can operate simultaneously to maximize the protection options available to people affected by the Syrian refugee crisis.
Although not a panacea, temporary protection could be a very important part of Europe’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The situation in the countries neighbouring Syria is dire for many refugees, and it is not surprising that many of them are willing to risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe boats to seek refuge in Europe. European countries should not wait for more tragedies to occur before taking further action to offer safe and legal ways for those forced to flee Syria to enter Europe, such as offering temporary protection.
Penny Ehrhardt and Bex McAllum contributed with helpful comments on a draft of this article.
Cynthia Orchard is a US-qualified attorney currently working as a consultant researcher and editor with BADIL (the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights). She has engaged in legal advocacy for refugees in the UK and US and recently completed a Masters degree in international human rights law at the University of Oxford. She is the co-author, with Andrew Miller, of ‘Protection in Europe for refugees from Syria’ (Policy Briefing 10, September 2014, supervised by Professor Dawn Chatty, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre) available here, which is a companion to the report by Professor Susan Akram and others, ‘Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies, and Global Responsibility-Sharing,’ available here.