The Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Common EU Response Needed

Towards civil war or conflict resolution?

The conflict in Syria has quickly escalated and prospects for peace – let alone peaceful regime change – seem unlikely. The human death toll is unknown. Accounts from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claim over 17,000Syrian deaths (11,897 civilians, 4,348 soldiers and 884 military defectors).[1] The UN estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced.[2]   

Although the conflict has continued for 17 months, the beginnings of a downward spiral can be discerned. In the past month alone, there have been a number of army desertions, and high-ranking military and political officers have defected. International leaders, the UN, and the Arab League have implemented sanctions, and have called for a transitional government to replace Assad. The US, the EU, and certain Arab states have also been assisting the Syrian rebels – whether monetarily, or with weapons. The Syrian rebels, however, do not form a coherent group, as forces are divided between the Free Syrian Army and the salasfists, and attacks against the government have not yet led to a significant weakening of the regime. 

Although initially wounding – particularly after the assassinations of four high-profile members of the regime – outcomes of Syrian rebel-led operations against the government remain unclear. If the rebellion is successful, could Assad fall? Would civil war, particularly between the new regime and potentially marginalized minority groups or Assad loyalists, follow? Syria’s complex communal context could turn any of its religious or linguistic groups into a target for violence: alongside a large Sunni majority, sizeable minorities comprise Shias (2 million, including Alawites), Christians (1.5 million), Druze (0.5 million), non-Arab Kurds (2 million), Palestinian refugees (close to 0.5 million), and Iraqi refugees (unknown number, possibly close to 100,000). If unsuccessful, could the regime unleash all the military powers of the state, leading to more deaths and refugee outflows?

Refugee movement gaining momentum: Neighbours of Syria host the vast majority of refugees

As the rebel strikes intensify, and as the Syrian government responds with more retaliatory violence, thousands of refugees pour over Syrian borders. On 20 July, and within 48 hours, the UNHCR witnessed a doubling of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon, with perhaps 30,000 Syrians crossing to Lebanon[3] – within one day’s time, it observed more than 3,000 Syrians flee into Iraq.[4] 

Numbers of refugees assisted by UNHCR have almost tripled in three months from 45,633 on 18 April 2012 to 117,087 – with another 5,000 awaiting registration – on 24 July 2012. The vast majority have fled to neighbouring countries: on 24 July 2012, 42,682 were registered in Turkey; 35,911 in Jordan; 31,004 in Lebanon; and 7,490 in Iraq.[5] UNHCR and other global and local NGOs are working within these countries to provide basic needs support and essential services; however, services are increasingly limited, and access to basic needs and services is allocated unevenly or unattainable throughout countries of asylum. Israel is the only among Syria’s neighbours where no Syrian has yet tried to find shelter, but human rights movements have warned that its government should respect the principle of non-refoulement and not turn back those who may flee across its border.[6]

Turkey at the external border of the EU: Europe receiving more entries of Syrian refugees

As the numbers of Syrians escaping into neighbouring countries increases, numbers fleeing to Europe are also on the rise. Germany, the EU MS with the largest number of Syrian asylum applications, witnessed the number of Syrian asylum applications double within the first five months of 2012, from 295 in January to 615 in May, totalling 2,155 in this time period alone (compared with and 2,030 Syrian claims in 2010, and 3,440 in all of 2011). Sweden comes next with 865 Syrian claims from January through May 2012 (compared with 450 claims in 2010, and 635 in 2011).[7]

Asylum applications filed by Syrians in Europe as a whole have markedly increased. From January to May 2012 alone, 5,370 asylum applications have been filed throughout EU Member States, and Norway and Switzerland – almost equalling the total number of Syrian applications in the entire year of 2010 (5,575). This number is undoubtedly much higher as not all MS have reported all numbers of applications, making it extremely likely that this number will soon surpass total Syrian applications filed in 2011 (8,920).[8] 

Frontex data also indicates an increase of Syrians detected as illegally crossing into Europe, as their number increased by almost six-fold within Quarter 1 (January 2012 through March 2012), with 715 entries, when compared to Quarter 1 2011 (126 entries) – the vast majority of which (83%) were detected at the Greek-Turkey border.[9]  First, it must be noted that not all those entering Europe without the proper documents are detected; and second, that while refugee camps in Turkey have been established close to the Syrian border, most Syrian refugees outside camps seem to be staying in Istanbul, i.e. close to the land border of Europe, which many of them may wish to reach.

Needs for designing a proper status

Although most EU MS have suspended forced return to Syria of Syrian nationals being in an irregular situation, there has been no decision or initiative at the EU level to prepare and organise a common or harmonised response to the arrival and stay of refugees from Syria in Europe since the beginning of the crisis more than 17 months ago.

As activating temporary protection status for Syrian nationals within the EU (as was recommended by UNHCR and the EU Parliament during the Libyan crisis) seems highly unlikely, the EU could opt for a common response to harmonise the receiving conditions and the protection of Syrian nationals in EU member states. EU institutions could commit themselves to the following:

*Ensure that no Syrian nationals are brought back to Syria or pushed back at the EU border;

*Ensure that Syrian nationals have the possibility to apply for asylum when they enter an EU territory;

*Facilitate the application procedures to reduce delays;

*Ensure that Syrian applicants all receive a protection status – either subsidiary (protection, which can be renewed or revoked based on risk of harm, to someone who does not qualify for refugee status, yet risks serious harm in returning to their country) or convention-based (protection granted to those who meet the UN definition of a refugee) – according to national regulations and individual situations.

During the Libyan crisis, the EU fundamentally failed to organise solidarity at the intra-EU level or to exemplify burden-sharing with its neighbourhood. The Syrian crisis is a second opportunity for the EU to unfold its capacity to: offer a common and collective response to refugee crises; to use and foster the respect of its acquis in regards to asylum and refugee protection; and to ensure that Syrian nationals on its territory are offered a proper protection.

Christine Fandrich, Research Assistant to the MPC

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of the Migration Policy Centre.


[1] “Activist group says Syrian death toll over 17,000.” Reuters, 10 Jul 2012. Web. 23 Jul 2012. http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/07/10/syria-crisis-toll-idINDEE86908X20120710

[2] UN News Centre. “Syria: Ban alarmed by intensifying violence, condemns attack on government building.” UN News Centre, 18 Jul 2012. Web. 23 Jul 2012. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42510&Cr=syria&Cr1  

[3] “Les habitants de Damas affluent au Liban, la peur au ventre”, L’Orient-Le Jour, 21 Jul. 2012

[4]  BBC News. “Syria crisis: Thousands of refugees flee violence.” BBC News. 20 Jul 2012. Web. 23 Jul 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18929940 

[5] Syrian Regional Refugee Response: Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey 20 July 2012, pg. 1. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

[6] Amnesty International: Israel must protect Syrian refugees, The Jerusalem Post, www.jpost.com, 21 July 2012 

[7] EUROSTAT

[8] EUROSTAT

[9] Frontex, FRAN Q1, 2012.  http://www.frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/FRAN_Q1_2012.pdf

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