Healing a neighbourhood: Potential EU responses to the Syrian refugee crisis

Syria in turmoil

The internal armed conflict in Syria continues endlessly with its cohorts of fleeing people. In addition to an estimated 20,000 civilian deaths, 2.5 million people have been afflicted, 1.2 million internally displaced and nearly 450,000 have sought asylum outside their homeland[1]. By mid-January 2013, the UN estimates that over 4 million people will be in need and the number of refugees will exceed 700,000[2]. Amidst this backdrop, how will Europe respond to the crisis in its neighbourhood?

The facts: How many Syrians fleeing the country and to where?

Neighbouring countries of Syria, except Israel, have assumed the bulk of the refugee burden. Turkey (123,747), Lebanon (97,152), Jordan (94,566) and Iraq (56,982) are accommodating the vast majority and thousands await registration. In North Africa, UNHCR has registered 9,734 Syrian refugees, and tens to hundreds of thousands are claimed to reside without UNHCR registration[3].

Only a tiny proportion of those fleeing Syria have been admitted within European borders. Although total numbers are unknown – due to the particularly clandestine nature of irregular stay and entry, and unavailable EU statistics – some facts regarding Syrians in the EU can be discerned:

  • Syrian asylum applications within Europe have increased since the beginning of the conflict, but remain small (Table 1).
  • The increase in Syrian asylum applications is concentrated in a few countries. Five in the EU (Germany with 8,435 asylum seekers recorded in 2011 and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2012; Sweden: 3,780; Belgium: 955; the United Kingdom: 915; and Austria: 825) and one outside the EU (Switzerland: 1,745)[4].
  • Recorded Syrian entries to Europe have increased since the beginning of the conflict, but remain small. The vast majority of Syrian entries were recorded at the Greek-Turkey land border (Table 2).
  • There was a negligible increase in Syrians applying for immigration in the EU. In 2010,7,829 Syrians applied for a first permit of residence and 8,106 in 2011 (2012 data is unavailable) indicating that applying for immigration in the EU has not been an access route to Europe for Syrians , at least in the first year of the crisis. Sweden, the only country providing data for 2012, suggests that change may have recently occurred: first residence permits granted in Sweden to Syrian nationals were 140 per month in average in 2010, 167 in 2011, but 274 in 2012 (January – June), almost twice their number before the crisis.

Table 1. Syrian asylum claims in EU by quarter

Quarter Applications
Q1-11 1,510
Q2-11 1,725
Q3-11 2,750
Q4-11 2,935
Q1-12 3,000
Q2-12 4,013
Q3-12 4,560

*Data compiled from EUROSTAT

Table 2. Recorded irregular Syrian entries into Europe by quarter

Quarter Irregular Entries
Q2-11 274
Q3-11 602
Q4-11 614
Q1-12 715
Q2-12 2,024

*Data compiled from Frontex FRAN Quarterly Report, various issues.

The EUs response to the crisis

In addition to political efforts aimed at assisting the Syrian people – i.e. actions that hasten a democratic transition– the EU has taken several actions regarding the crisis:

Humanitarian aid

By 16 November 2012, the EU and its Member States had provided an approximate €288 million in assistance to those within and outside the country.[5]

Granting protection 

Syrian asylum seekers have been granted the highest percentage of positive decisions out of the top 30 nationalities applying for asylum in the EU. EUROSTAT reported that in Q2 2012, 4,390 out of 4,765 applications were positively granted protection – 1,595 refugee status and 2,755 subsidiary protection – meaning that almost all were granted some form of protection.[6] Levels of protection vary across Europe. In Germany, the vast majority of Syrians who apply for asylum are granted subsidiary protection. In Sweden, most Syrians who apply for asylum will automatically be granted a temporary residence permit for three years.[7] Norway and Denmark are granting ‘tolerated stay’ to Syrians. Other countries, like Greece and Eastern European states, have higher rejection rates of Syrian asylum claims when compared to the rest of Europe.[8] Other discussions have focused on providing shelter – albeit temporary – as EU and Greece considered providing shelter, if necessary, for 20,000 Syrian refugees on the islands of Crete and Rhodes.[9] Most EU Member States have refrained from forcibly repatriating Syrians back to their country.[10]

Consideration of a Regional Protection Programme (RPP)
The EU has considered implementing a RPP that could enhance “the capacities of the authorities and of the organisations dealing with international protection and refugee issues with a view to meeting the longer term challenges they will face and providing durable solutions.” [11]

Increased border security
In July 2012, Greece with the assistance of Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office) dispatched 1,800 border guards to the Greek-Turkey Evros border and placed 26 floating barriers along the river. More than 80% of Syrians crossing into Europe in the first quarter of 2012 did so through this border.[12]

Healing a neighbourhood: What other actions could the EU take?

Most countries involved in the conflict are acutely linked to the European Union, not only through Association Agreements, but also through their involvement in a progression towards a more peaceful, stable and prosperous region. At a time when unprecedented changes are occurring in the region, the EU could grasp this situation as an opportunity to show its responsibility to burden sharing and its commitment to mutually improving both shores of the Mediterranean. In order to continue efforts at resolving the Syrian crisis, the EU could:

  • Increase refugee resettlement for those who have been affected by the Syrian crisis and are the most in need. The EU has not publicly acknowledged the need for Syrian resettlement and has instead focused on providing assistance to third host countries. The EU could encourage resettlement as it has done in other refugee-producing conflicts (Iraq).
  • Continue positive asylum procedures throughout the EU, and grant prima facie recognition including provision of sufficient assistance.
  • EASO could take a more active role. EASO could provide and analyse clear data regarding Syrian refugees and coordinate MS’ efforts at providing protection to Syrians. It could in particular advice Member States about the right status to be granted to Syrians and on how to assist Syrians already within the EU.
  • Continue to work with its international partners to find a political and humanitarian solution to the Syrian crisis.

Christine Fandrich, Research Assistant to the MPC

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


[1] UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response, and the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department of the European Commission, ECHO.

[2] UN News Centre (9 November 2012) Retrieved from:  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=43458&Cr=syria&Cr1=&Kw1=syria&Kw2=deaths&Kw3=

[3] UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response. See also:  Fick , M. (2012 , October 18). Un: 150,000 syrian refugees have fled to egypt. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/10488910; and UNHCR. Syria situation regional roundup. (2012, October 23). Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=50866f729&query=syriansegypt.

[4] EUROSTAT.

[5] For detailed provision of EU humanitarian assistance, see: ECHO Factsheet Syria (16 November 2012).

[6] EUROSTAT.

[7] Migrationsverket. (12 August 2012). Due to the current violence in Syria, many people will be allowed to stay in Sweden. Retrieved from http://www.migrationsverket.se/info/5833_en.html.

[8] UNHCR. (2012, October 18). Op. cit.

[9] UNHCR. (2012, October 11). Greece to accommodate syrian refugees on tourist islands. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.se/en/media/baltic-and-nordic-headlines/2012/october/12-16-october-2012.html

[10] According to Frontex, “Syrians were not returned in large number (less than 300 persons), but while the numbers were rather stable in most Member States, Greece reported a sharp increase in returns of Syrians as of June 2012” (about 125 people).  Frontex. (2012, October). Fran quarterly issue 2. Retrieved from: http://www.frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/FRAN_Q2_2012_.pdf

[11] Cyprus Presidency of the Council of the European Union. (2012, October 24). Press release – common european asylum system and regional protection programme for syria on the agenda of jha. Retrieved from http://www.cy2012.eu/index.php/en/news-categories/areas/justice-and-home-affairs/press-release-common-european-asylum-system-and-regional-protection-programme-for-syria-on-the-agend

[12] Frontex.

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One Comment on “Healing a neighbourhood: Potential EU responses to the Syrian refugee crisis”

  1. […] Healing a Neighbourhood: Potential EU Responses to the Syrian Refugee Crisis (Debate Migration Blog, Dec. 2012) [text] […]


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