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Syrian refugees: a neglected human rights crisis in Europe

Strasbourg, 20/12/2013 – One of the world’s biggest refugee crises of recent times is unfolding on Europe’s doorstep, but most European governments have reacted with complete indifference. Close to 4 million people are internally displaced in Syria and almost 3 million have left the country since the beginning of the conflict.  The vast majority of the refugees benefit from the hospitality of Syria’s neighouring countries, including Turkey, which have taken the brunt of this humanitarian crisis.  As for the rest of Europe, the response has so far been limited to providing humanitarian assistance to some of these countries. However, when it comes to actually receiving refugees, Europe has been much less generous and often negligent in abiding by its human right obligations.

I could personally witness the extent of this crisis and the multiple challenges it represents for Europe during this last week, which I’ve spent visiting Syrian refugee camps and centres in Turkey, Bulgaria and Germany. More than half of the refugees fleeing Syria are children, the majority of them younger than 12. Several thousand of them are unaccompanied or separated, while many are not registered and remain at risk of statelessness. It is estimated that at least half of the more than 1 million refugee children of school age in the neighbouring countries do not currently enjoy their right to education. Although many are eager to study, the lack of resources prevents them from starting or going back to school.

Instead, one in ten Syrian children is thought to be engaged in labour. Children who have barely reached school age spend their time on the streets looking for work every day and end up being exploited in jobs that often expose them to hazardous conditions. They end their childhood abruptly and take on the heavy responsibility of being their families’ breadwinners.

This does not need to be so. It is heartening to see how quickly children can start flourishing again, even in flight, if they are given an opportunity and if their rights are respected. I have witnessed this in Turkey, where education is provided in the 21 government-run refugee camps to more than 45 000 children, although access to education outside camps remains difficult.

Europe has failed to rise to the challenge

In spite of the size and proximity of this human tragedy, Turkey is the only country to have opened its arms fully to Syrians in need, having received alone an estimated 1 million. This amounts to well over ten times the number of Syrians in all other 46 Council of Europe states combined. Germany, Sweden, and Armenia have also taken some steps to receive Syrian refugees through humanitarian admission and facilitated family reunification.

However, with only a few thousand places available under these programmes (some 15 000 places available for resettlement as a whole) some Syrians have attempted to reach a safe haven in Europe on their own. But measures such as tightened visa requirements and strict conditions for family reunification have made it impossible for them to do so. Worse, there are increasing reports that Syrians seeking refuge have been informally returned, literally “pushed back”, from the borders of certain European countries they were trying to reach and in some cases seriously ill-treated during these operations.

Unfortunately, I have also seen how Syrians, when they somehow manage to reach the territory of some member states and seek asylum there, are subjected to detention or inadequate, even degrading, living conditions.

The response: solidarity and respect for human-rights

European countries must support all Syrians in need of aid and international protection. They must respond generously to UNHCR’s appeals not only for funding but also for resettlement of refugees from countries neighbouring Syria to their own territory. They must fully abide by their human rights and refugee law obligations emanating notably from the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Refugee Convention. They should, at least:

- keep their borders open to allow Syrian refugees to access their territory to seek and enjoy asylum, including by granting humanitarian visas;

- immediately cease any expulsions of Syrians at their borders and other practices contrary to the principle of non-refoulement;

- adopt formal moratoria on returns of Syrian refugees to Syria;

- refrain from returning Syrian refugees to countries neighbouring Syria, thereby avoiding adding to the challenges faced by their governments and local communities;

- refrain from using the “Dublin Regulation” for returning Syrian refugees to other European countries whose asylum systems are already overstretched, in particular Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Malta;

- ensure that recognised Syrian refugees and beneficiaries of other forms of international protection have adequate opportunities for integration in their host communities.

Finally, European states must fully live up to their responsibilities to help Syrian children regain their childhood and build their future. Every day of missing help and rights denied is a day stolen from their life and from humanity itself.