Europe's Syrian refugee shame exposed

By agency reporter
31 Dec 2013

European leaders should hang their heads in shame over the pitifully low numbers of refugees from Syria they are prepared to resettle, says Amnesty International.

In a new briefing paper, An international failure: The Syrian refugee crisis, the organisation details how European Union (EU) member states have only offered to open their doors to around 12,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria: just 0.5 per cent of the 2.3 million people who have fled the country.

“The EU has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives. The number of those it’s prepared to resettle is truly pitiful. Across the board European leaders should hang their heads in shame,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

The closest European capital - Nicosia - lies a mere 200 miles from Damascus. Yet collectively, EU member states have pledged to resettle just a very small proportion of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees. Amnesty International’s briefing breaks down the figures.

Only 10 EU member states offered resettlement or humanitarian admission places to refugees from Syria.

Germany is by far the most generous – pledging to take 10,000 refugees or 80 per cent of total EU pledges.

Excluding Germany, the remaining 27 EU member states have offered to take a mere 2,340 refugees from Syria.

France offered just 500 places or 0.02 per cent of the total number of people who have fled Syria.

Spain agreed to take just 30 or 0.001 per cent of refugees from Syria.

Eighteen EU member states – including the UK and Italy – offered no places at all.

As winter approaches, conditions for the 2.2 million people who have fled Syria to neighbouring countries are deteriorating rapidly.

With only 12,000 places offered by EU member states for resettlement or humanitarian admission, others attempt the journey under their own steam. Tens of thousands have reached Europe trying to claim asylum having risked life and limb in arduous journeys, on boats or across land.

Amnesty's research reveals that first they have to break through the barricades of Fortress Europe. Many are faced with violent push-backs by police and coastguards, or detained for weeks in deplorable conditions.

Hundreds of people die attempting to cross the Mediterranean every year. In October it is estimated that as many as 650 refugees and migrants died when three boats sank attempting to reach Europe from North Africa.

More than 10,000 refugees from Syria are reported to have arrived along Italy’s coast in the first 10 months of this year.

Amnesty International’s briefing gives first-hand accounts of those who have attempted to reach Europe by sea.

Awad, a 17-year-old boy from Damascus, described how he managed to escape through a window of a sinking boat and swim to the surface. There were reportedly 400 people on board. He saw people clinging to dead bodies and boat wreckage to stay afloat, while others fought over life jackets. Awad lost his mother as well as other family members.

“I have no idea where my family are… I used to have ambition but now I have lost my mother, I don't want anything, I just want stability, everything else is second to that.”

Another boy from Syria lost both his father and nine-year-old brother in the accident.

“My experience didn’t just destroy my dreams; it destroyed my family’s dreams. I am destroyed completely.”

In two of the main gateways to the EU, Bulgaria and Greece, refugees from Syria are met with deplorable treatment, including life threatening push-back operations along the Greek coast, and detention for weeks in poor conditions in Bulgaria.

Refugees have told Amnesty how Greek police or coastguards, wielding guns and wearing full face hoods, ill-treat them, strip them of their belongings and eventually push them back to Turkey.

A 32-year-old man from Syria described how he and his mother were confronted by the Greek coastguard near the island of Samos in October. They were part of a group of 35 people including women and young children pushed back to Turkey.

“They put all the men lying on the boat; they stepped on us and hit us with their weapons for three hours. Then at around 10 in the morning, after removing the motor, they put us back to our plastic boat and drove us back to the Turkish waters and left us in the middle of the sea.’’

The number of unlawful push-back operations from Greece is not known; however, Amnesty International believes hundreds have been affected.

In the last two years the European Commission has provided €228 million to bolster border controls.

In comparison, for the same time period, just €12 million was allocated to Greece under the European Refugee Fund, which supports efforts in receiving refugees.

In Bulgaria, an estimated 5,000 refugees from Syria arrived between January and November 2013. The majority are housed in emergency centres, the largest of which is in the town of Harmanli. It is effectively a closed detention centre.

The global human rights NGO also found refugees living in squalid conditions in containers, a dilapidated building and in tents. There was a lack of adequate sanitary facilities with limited access to food, bedding or medicine.

A large number of people were in need of medical care, including some injured in conflict, individuals suffering chronic diseases and those with mental health problems.

Some of the refugees in Harmanli told Amnesty International that they had been detained for over a month.

“Tens of thousands are risking perilous journeys by boat or land to try and reach Europe. We have seen hundreds lose their lives in the Mediterranean. It is deplorable that many of those that who have risked life and limb to get here, are either forced back or detained in truly squalid conditions with insufficient food, water or medical care,” said Salil Shetty.

Europe must act, Amnesty argues. “The platitudes of Europe’s leaders ring hollow in the face of the evidence,” said Salil Shetty. “The EU must open its borders, provide safe passage, and halt these deplorable human rights violations.”

Just 55,000 Syrian refugees (2.4 per cent of the total number of people who have fled Syria) have managed to get through and claim asylum in the EU.

For those who manage to break through the barricades of Fortress Europe, many head for Sweden or Germany, which have offered the most help to asylum seekers. In the two years to the end of October 2013, Sweden has received 20,490 new Syrian asylum applications and Germany received 16,100 such applications. Less than 1,000 people have claimed asylum in each of Greece, Italy and Cyprus.

Amnesty International is calling on European member states to: Significantly increase the number of resettlement and humanitarian admission places for refugees from Syria; Strengthen search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to identify boats in distress and assist those on board; Ensure that those rescued are treated with dignity and have access to asylum procedures; Ensure that unlawful push-back operations are ended; Provide legal safe passage for Syrian asylum seekers wishing to travel to European member states.

The EU, its member states, and the international community should continue to provide support to countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees, particularly Jordan and Lebanon, the NGO declares.

[Ekk/3]

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