Refugees from Syria

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Background: Why are people fleeing Syria?

In early 2011, in the midst of the Arab spring, pro-democracy protests erupted across Syria demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. The government’s heavy-handed response to the dissent only fuelled the revolt, and as rebel brigades formed to battle government forces, the country descended into civil war. Since then, the conflict has evolved, taking on sectarian overtones and now involving a complex mix of actors, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State. 

According to the UN, over 220,000 people have been killed and over a million injured in the conflict in Syria. An estimated 12.2 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance within the country, where vital infrastructure has been destroyed and four in every five Syrians live in poverty. Serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have been documented by multiple actors in the conflict, including the use of chemical weapons. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has said that the Syrian war has ‘unleashed the worst humanitarian crisis of our times … posing a terrible threat to regional stability and to global peace and security’.

Where are Syrians displaced?

There has been large-scale displacement from Syria since 2012, when the flight of Syrians constituted the largest annual exodus by a single refugee group since the Balkans crisis of the 1990s.

Over half of Syria’s population of 22 million is currently displaced. The majority of these people remain within Syria, where over 7.6 million are internally displaced. In addition, over 4.08 million Syrians have fled the country and become refugees. Of these, around 95% are hosted in neighbouring countries in the Middle East. On a numerical basis, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, including 1.9 million registered Syrian refugees. On a per capita basis, Lebanon and Jordan respectively host the largest and second largest number of refugees in the world. Lebanon hosts over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, representing almost a quarter of its resident population, and Jordan hosts almost 629,000 Syrian refugees, as well as refugees from Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, which together comprise almost 9% of its population. There are also 248,500 registered Syrian refugees in Iraq and over 132,000 in Egypt. According to UNHCR, almost 478,500 people have sought to cross the Mediterranean sea to Europe in 2015, of which 54% were from Syria. 

Why are people seeking to reach to Europe now?

Fighting has escalated across Syria, driving many to flee the country. Further, after years of inadequate international support, the economies and infrastructure of neighbouring countries in the Middle East are struggling to cope with the large numbers of refugees they are hosting. With limited access to work and basic services, and increasingly strained relations with host communities, many refugees are very vulnerable. Recent studies show that 70% of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon, and 86% of Syrian households in Jordan, live below the poverty line. Faced with this daily struggle for survival, and with a lack of durable solutions in sight, many refugees have sought protection beyond the region, in Europe and elsewhere.

What are other countries doing to support displaced Syrians?

As noted above, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are hosted by neighbouring countries in the Middle East. By early 2015, the cost of hosting Syrian refugees in Turkey had accumulated to over US$5 billion, of which the international community covered only 3%.

The United States has made the largest financial contribution to humanitarian efforts in Syria and neighbouring countries, donating over US$1.1 billion this year. It has committed to increasing its overall refugee intake from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017, and, specifically, to take 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next fiscal year. Canada has contributed over $141 million to humanitarian efforts, and will resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by September 2016

Germany has provided over US$235 million this year to humanitarian efforts in Syria and neighbouring countries. Between 2011 and August 2015, it had received 108,897 asylum applications from Syrians. In 2015 alone, Germany expects to receive 800,000 to 1 million asylum applications from various countries. It has assigned €6 billion to handle this influx, and has stated that the country is able to accept 500,000 asylum seekers per year for the next several years. Sweden has historically accepted the most refugees per capita in the EU, receiving 64,685 asylum applications from Syrians between April 2011 and August 2015. The United Kingdom has contributed over US$474 million to humanitarian efforts relating to the Syria conflict. It will resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years from countries neighbouring Syria, but will not participate in the EU’s proposed resettlement and relocation schemes.

Kuwait has contributed over US$304 million and Japan over US$137 million to humanitarian efforts in Syria and neighbouring countries this year, but neither has committed to resettling any refugees from Syria.

What are Australia’s policies in relation to Syrian refugees?

The Australian government has announced that it will resettle 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in a one-off increase to its humanitarian program, and will give an additional A$44 million to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Prior to this announcement, Australia had provided close to US$17 million in funding to the humanitarian response in Syria and its neighbours in 2015.  

Australia’s response will not benefit Syrian refugees who are in immigration detention in Australia, Nauru or Manus Island. It is estimated that there are around 30 Syrians in detention and two in the community in Nauru. It is difficult to give precise numbers because the government does not release this information publicly. These figures are based on reports by media, refugee lawyers and advocates.

Syrians in detention have fled the same violent conflict as the 12,000 Syrian refugees whom the government has agreed to resettle from overseas. There is little difference between the Syrian refugees in the Middle East, Europe, Australia, Nauru or Manus Island, other than the fact that they chose different routes and means of travel. International law is unequivocal that every person has the right to seek asylum and must not be penalized for arriving without a visa or other travel documents. Further, international law does not require asylum seekers to remain in the first country they reach. Australia’s mandatory detention and offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat breaches international law in a number of respects.

Just like the 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia will resettle from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, the Syrian refugees in Australian and offshore detention centres face a real chance of persecution or other serious harm in their home country. They have a need for international protection, and Australia has an obligation to provide it.

Finally, although Syrians form a large proportion of the world’s displaced people, there are refugees of many other nationalities – as well as stateless refugees – who are also at risk of persecution or other human rights violations. It is important that responses to Syrian refugees do not obscure the protection needs of these other groups.

Further reading

For further information, contact Frances Voon, Executive Manager of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at frances.voon@unsw.edu.au.