The number of refugees from Syria now exceeds 2.1 million. The EP is calling for a comprehensive humanitarian aid package inside and outside Syria, together with a more coherent approach from Member States (MS) to the reception of refugees from Syria.
Number of Syrian refugees
Doctors and medical professionals state that the conflict in Syria has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Cold War. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the number of Syrian refugees since the civil war began in March 2011 passed 2 million on 3 September. The number is expected to exceed 3 million by the end of 2013. More than 97% of Syria’s refugees, half of them children, are hosted by neighbouring countries. A further 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria, according to the UN’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). That means almost 30% of Syria’s 21.9 million population have been forced to flee their homes.
Accurate and reliable data on the number of Syrians coming to the EU is lacking. However, 55 035 asylum applicants from Syria have been registered so far. Moreover, Eurostat reports that, in 2012, Syrians became the single largest group granted protection.
The EU has been the biggest humanitarian donor in Syria since the start of the conflict. EU aid totals over €1.85 billion, of which around €1 billion comes from Member States. EU funding is channelled through the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, UN humanitarian agencies and international NGOs.
As regards Syrian refugees, the developing Common European Asylum System (CEAS) sets the framework for reception of those seeking protection in MS. Article 25 of the Schengen Visa Code enables MS to issue visas with limited territorial validity on humanitarian grounds. Article 5(4)(c) of the Schengen Borders Code includes the possibility for MS to authorise third-country nationals to enter on humanitarian grounds. The Temporary Protection Directive provides for refugees to be granted residence permits for the duration of the protection period.
The European Refugee Fund (ERF) (€614 million over the period 2008-13) supports EU countries’ efforts in receiving refugees. The Preparatory Action on Emergency Resettlement (€3 million for 2012) complements the ERF, aiming to support resettlement actions of people in emergency situations, needing international protection according to the UNHCR.
EU institutions’ positions
The Council has expressed its concerns on many occasions at the deterioration of the Syrian conflict and its consequences on the humanitarian situation. The Council calls for safe and unimpeded access for aid organisations to those in need. However, the Council has not formally discussed the reception of Syrian refugees in the EU.
The EP has adopted several resolutions on Syria, in particular those of 16 February 2012, 13 September 2012, 22 May 2013 and 12 September 2013. The EP expresses concern that the exodus of refugees from Syria is continuing to accelerate. It urges the Commission to present a comprehensive aid package to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria and neighbouring countries (in particular Jordan and Lebanon). The EP insists that all parties involved in the conflict in Syria must facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid and assistance through all possible channels. A resolution tabled by the Civil Liberties (LIBE) Committee calls for a more coherent approach, and more solidarity with MS facing particular pressure in the reception of refugees from Syria.
European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva stated on 30 September 2013 that the EU must not only keep its heart and wallet open, but also its borders.
EU Member States’ responses
More than half of Syrian asylum requests in the EU were lodged in Sweden and Germany. While there is general consensus among MS that Syrian refugees should not be returned to Syria, there are divergences in practice, the UNHCR indicates.
In general, most MS fear an influx of Syrian refugees, reports AFP; Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK have insisted that there can be no easing of asylum rules. Many MS continue to grant only subsidiary protection (a person who does not qualify as a refugee but who would face a real risk if they return to their country) to Syrian refugees, while others grant purely humanitarian status (authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons).
Up to now, Sweden is the only MS to grant permanent residence permits to people from Syria. Germany has agreed to accept 5 000 Syrian refugees who will be allowed to stay for at least two years. Facing an increase of refugees since the summer, Italy published a decree on 17 September expressing its intention to enhance reception capacity from the current 3 000 to 16 000 places by 2016. UNHCR estimates that 4 600 Syrians arrived illegally in Italy by sea between January and early September 2013. Bulgaria’s Interior Minister announced that Bulgaria intends to provide an additional 1 000 places in accommodation centres for Syrian refugees and asked the EU for help.
Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs, has declared that the international community, including the EU, should do more to help with the consequences of the Syrian crisis, and not leave it only to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stated at the Informal Meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council in Vilnius, in July 2013, that greater consistency within Europe is needed to ensure that more countries fully assume their protection responsibilities.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Syrians seeking asylum in the EU face a protection lottery, depending on the country they reach. Amnesty International has underlined in a report that in Greece some Syrian refugees have been repulsed, detained, summarily deported or refused asylum. HRW believes that the EU should also do more to help the thousands of Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Europe, but also to step up its assistance in the whole region affected by the crisis. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) insists that diplomatic efforts must be taken to ensure that UN agencies and humanitarian aid organisations are able to provide emergency assistance inside and outside Syria.