Europe must give Syrian refugees a home
António Guterres, UN high commissioner for refugees
EU countries have to recognise this crisis will not go away and offer Syrian asylum seekers legal, humane routes into Europe
Syrian refugees at a camp on the Syria-Turkey border. 'Europe is increasingly faced not with a choice over whether Syrian refugees will enter its borders, but under what circumstances.' Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
While the world’s eyes are now firmly fixed on Gaza, the Syrian maelstrom of death, destruction and displacement rages on, and shows no signs of abating.
When histories are written about the humanitarian cost of Syria’s civil war, Europe’s response to the crisis of a generation might be summed up in a single phrase: never was so little done by so many for so few.
More than three years after the conflict began, almost three million refugees have fled their shattered homeland in fear of their lives. A dispassionate observer might imagine that, by virtue of wealth and geography, many would seek safe harbour just a few kilometres to the west, in the peaceful and prosperous countries of the EU.
The reality is dramatically different. In response to the largest forced displacement crisis in the world, taking place only a short boat ride away, Europeans have provided refuge to a grand total of 124,000 Syrians – less than 4% of all Syrian asylum seekers.
Lebanon, by contrast, a country with a population of around 4.4 million, is host to 1.1 million Syrians in exile. These are just those who have registered as refugees. That is 10 times as many, in a country with less than 1% of Europe’s population. In other words, person for person, the wealthy EU is offering refuge to 1,000 times fewer Syrians than cash-strapped Lebanon, a country already struggling with severe internal difficulties and reaching the limits of its ability to absorb the problems of another.
Of course, it is not as simple as that. Many Syrian refugees still hope to return one day and don’t want to travel too far. Their neighbours share a religion, in most cases a language, and are easier to reach.
But from some of the rhetoric in Europe, the concerns raised about a tide of refugees battering at the gates, one would never realise that it is carrying so little of this burden, even as a regional humanitarian catastrophe rages at its doorstep.
But these stark facts do not tell the full story. More than half of all new Syrian asylum applications in Europe are absorbed by only two countries: Sweden and Germany. Both stand out by granting protection to Syrians seeking asylum, with Sweden additionally offering permanent residency. They have exemplary humanitarian admission and resettlement programmes; Germany also leads the way in private sponsorship of refugees.
The next five countries account for about a quarter. That means many other EU states are doing less than their fair share to absorb Syria’s fleeing millions; they should be doing far more to help. Cecilia Malmström, the EU commissioner for home affairs who has done so much to keep this issue alive, appealed earlier this month for all EU states to follow the example of Germany and Sweden.
The consequences of Europe’s underwhelming response to the suffering of millions nearby was put into sharp relief this week in a new report by the UN high commissioner for refugees. Syrian Refugees in Europe shows that while the proportion of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe remains relatively low, the total number is growing and there are worrying signs that the EU’s response is growing less benign.
While most asylum applications in Europe are granted, the report cites the growing accounts of “pushbacks” on the Bulgaria-Turkey border in which asylum appeals are ignored and families separated, as well as “disturbing accounts of forced returns”. Many asylum seekers have reported being mistreated, beaten and abused.
The report also charts pushbacks and ill-treatment in Greece, as well as closed borders, including the Spanish border at Melilla, which was found closed when a group of 200 Syrians tried to enter in February. There are accounts of detentions, inadequate housing and substandard reception centres throughout, falling short of international standards.
Italy has provided exemplary service with its Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) rescue operation for Syrians stranded at sea, saving 64,000 people this year alone. But it too has seen its reception centres become increasingly overcrowded and some asylum seeker have been left in critical conditions for prolonged periods.
The consequences of these failures are severe. Threatened with the denial of entry by legal means, many people are turning to illegal trafficking networks. This includes tens of thousands of children threatened with separation from family members, child labour, exploitation and sexual abuse.
In other words, Europe is increasingly faced not with a choice over whether Syrian refugees will enter its borders, but under what circumstances: illegally, under the radar and at serious risk, or in a regulated, humane manner.
That is why I am urgently calling on EU states to heed Malmström’s advice by offering more and better legal ways of coming to Europe – whether through student or work visas, more resettlement places, family reunification schemes or private sponsorship.
Reception centres should be brought up to standard and detention – with all its devastating consequences on the well-being of refugees – kept to a bare minimum, with strict limits and safeguards.
Most of all, more politicians need to step up and recognise this crisis for what it is: a massive, multi-regional disaster that is not going away, which is causing the protracted suffering of millions next door and which Europe can do far more to alleviate.
Relief support to Syria’s neighbours is important, but it is no longer enough. It is time for European charity on this crisis to begin at home.