Block­ing Syr­ian Refugees Isn’t the Way

The refugee bur­den that Syria’s neigh­bors are shoul­der­ing is heavy and should not be borne alone. But keep­ing peo­ple flee­ing for their lives in buffer zones inside Syr­ian bor­ders risks trap­ping rather than pro­tect­ing them.


By: Bill Fre­lick

The refugee bur­den that Syria’s neigh­bors are shoul­der­ing is heavy and should not be borne alone. But keep­ing peo­ple flee­ing for their lives in buffer zones inside Syr­ian bor­ders risks trap­ping rather than pro­tect­ing them. 

Yet this is pre­cisely what Pres­i­dent Michel Suleiman of Lebanon pro­posed on April 4, join­ing oth­ers such as For­eign Min­is­ter Ahmet Davu­to­glu of Turkey, who made a sim­i­lar call in Novem­ber 2011, and Prime Min­is­ter Abdul­lah Ensour of Jor­dan, who spoke in Jan­u­ary of secur­ing “safe havens” inside Syr­ian ter­ri­tory, say­ing of poten­tial new refugee flows, “We will stop them and keep them in their country.”

It appears that steps are being taken to cre­ate such bor­der zones. The United States is work­ing with Jor­dan­ian author­i­ties to train Syr­ian oppo­si­tion forces in what may be an attempt to set up a buffer zone on the south­ern bor­der of Syria for defec­tors from the army and dis­placed civilians.

The term “buffer” sug­gests that the pur­pose of such zones is to insu­late neigh­bor­ing states from the effects of the Syr­ian con­flict, and state­ments by senior offi­cials in neigh­bor­ing states indi­cate that stop­ping the flow of refugees is their pri­mary motivation.

Syria’s neigh­bors have been remark­ably hos­pitable to Syr­ian refugees, tak­ing in 1.2 mil­lion so far. But the warn­ing signs that their gen­eros­ity is reach­ing its limit are clear.

The 50,000 dis­placed Syr­i­ans massed on the Syr­ian side of the Turk­ish bor­der near the town of Atma raise ques­tions about how open that bor­der actu­ally is.

There is no ques­tion about the Iraqi bor­der; its main bor­der cross­ing with Syria, Al Qaim, has been closed since Octo­ber. Israel’s bor­der has been shut to Syr­i­ans and is not even part of the con­ver­sa­tion. Jor­dan, mean­while, is deny­ing entry to four highly vul­ner­a­ble groups: all Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in Syria; all sin­gle men of mil­i­tary age; Iraqi refugees liv­ing in Syria; and any­one who is undoc­u­mented, despite the wide­spread bomb­ing in Syria that not only destroys homes and prop­er­ties but doc­u­ments as well.

The Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights upholds as a basic human right “the right to seek and to enjoy in other coun­tries asy­lum from per­se­cu­tion.” The fun­da­men­tal right is to cross a bor­der to seek protection.

Some dis­placed Syr­i­ans may pre­fer to remain inside their coun­try, par­tic­u­larly as oppo­si­tion forces sta­bi­lize areas under their con­trol. Inter­na­tional human­i­tar­ian orga­ni­za­tions are already pro­vid­ing some cross-​border human­i­tar­ian assis­tance to rebel-​held areas, and should, as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple, increase their assis­tance to meet the needs.

But as inter­na­tional actors pro­vide cross-​border aid or even con­sider more robust engage­ment inside Syria in the name of civil­ian assis­tance or pro­tec­tion, this should not be used as a pre­text for con­tain­ing the flight of peo­ple who feel threatened.

Keep­ing dis­placed peo­ple penned up inside Syria is not a solu­tion that can ensure their safety. Gov­ern­ments out­side the region need to step up their sup­port for the front-​line states to min­i­mize the desta­bi­liz­ing impact of the mas­sive refugee inflows.

There are sev­eral ways to do this. First, by meet­ing the human­i­tar­ian needs of the dis­placed; the U.N. human­i­tar­ian appeal for the Syr­ian human­i­tar­ian cri­sis is only 50-​ percent-​funded. Sec­ond, by pro­vid­ing bilat­eral sup­port to bol­ster the capac­ity of front-​line states to help sus­tain their own affected com­mu­ni­ties and pre­vent anti-​refugee back­lashes; and third, by sup­port­ing human­i­tar­ian evac­u­a­tion, as needed, at the request of front-​line states and in coor­di­na­tion with the U.N. Refugee Agency.

At the end of the day, how­ever, a short-​term con­tain­ment strat­egy, while attrac­tive in its sim­plic­ity, is really no solu­tion, pro­vid­ing nei­ther pro­tec­tion for refugees, sta­bil­ity for neigh­bor­ing states nor a res­o­lu­tion to the cri­sis itself. An effec­tive inter­na­tional response must address and resolve the causes of the dis­place­ment as well as the interim needs of the displaced.

Bill Fre­lick is the refugee pol­icy direc­tor at Human Rights Watch.

Source: hrw​.org

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