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"Celebrating" World Refugee Day with four million Syrian refugees on our doorstep

by Philippe Fargues
Director, Migration Policy Centre

17 June 2015


World Refugee Day comes this year as the number of Syrians registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees passes the dreadful milestone of 4 million. To these, one must add the many millions of internally displaced persons trapped within the borders of that country. Now into its fifth year, the conflict, which has already triggered the largest wave of forced displacement since World War II, shows no signs of abating.  Far from that, no one can even predict whether a state named Syria will exist if and when weapons finally fall silent. The whole region that was once called “the Fertile Crescent” could become the grave of the very idea of nation-state that the Great Powers imposed at the end of World War I on peoples ruled for 400 years by Ottoman Turks.

While families continue to seek protection from daily bombings and blind violence, the doors have shut, one by one, in the face of those fleeing.  Out of Syria’s five neighbours, Israel never let any refugees in; Jordan and Lebanon, who had generously welcomed the first waves and host respectively 628,000 and 1.183 million Syrians, have now closed their borders to new refugees: Iraq, where 250,000 found shelter, has no longer a border with Syria as most of that area has fallen under the ominous control of an uninvited actor, “Daesh”, the self-appointed “Islamic State”, which itself generates new flows of exodus. Turkey is Syria’s only neighbour remaining open to those fleeing the conflict; with already 1.761 million Syrian refugees, Turkey hosts the largest number of all.  

There is no other place of asylum within reach of Syria. The wealthy Arab States of the Gulf whose borders are constantly crossed by one of the world’s largest flows of guest workers are sealed off to their Syrian Arab brothers. The European Union, who reluctantly pledged to resettle a minuscule 0.5% of the refugees currently hosted by countries bordering on Syria (20,000 in total), is accessible to asylum seekers only after a long and dangerous journey as unauthorised migrants, too often at the risk of their lives across the Mediterranean. Around 220,000 Syrians have been recorded as new asylum seekers in the EU28 since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011. This is much too few to relieve, in any way, the plight of countries where Syrian refugees represent between 10% (Jordan) and 25% (Lebanon) of the total population. The economic burden they bring to local communities and the threat they represent to internal security and political systems risk destabilising receiving states. What would happen in the Near East if a third state were to fail after Iraq and Syria, while other regional tensions come to a climax, is simply unthinkable. For the sake of its own security, Europe must not let the refugee crisis continue in the world’s most sensitive region, and, let us not forget, Europe’s neighbourhood. It must resolutely act: opening wider asylum channels for Syrians; providing increased aid to local actors in countries of first asylum; and creating safe havens in the region. 


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