In an unjust world, and when wars happen the innocent and the vulnerable will always be the unfortunate victims. Many thousands have died on perilous journeys to seek safe sanctuary, and those surviving arrivals including the elderly and infirm, women and children are pleading to be allowed to live in security, with a modicum of dignity. As the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan drags on, countries are sealing their borders with razor wire fences. Refugees are stranded unable to reach a safe haven.
Syrians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe first have to physically get there. EU member states closed their embassies in Syria at the start of the conflict, and embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries have been reluctant to process visa and asylum applications. Egypt, the closed its doors to Syrians without visas in July 2013. Jordan closed its borders to the vast majority of Syrians in September 2014. Lebanon ended its open-door policy for Syrians in January 2015 when it introduced new regulations requiring them to apply for difficult-to-obtain visas or a Lebanese sponsor before being admitted. Lebanon demanded that UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, stop new registrations of Syrian refugees in May 2015. The heavily militarised and UN-patrolled border with Israel leads to the contested Golan Heights. Asylum seekers cannot cross. Iraq, particularly the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, saw an influx of Syrian refugees in 2013. The borders are now mostly closed to asylum seekers. Turkey, long the most generous host country in terms of the sheer numbers of Syrians it has taken in, closed its last two official border crossing points to almost all asylum seekers in March 2015. And in recent months, it has implemented further border controls. “We believe people have the right to seek refuge and safety, however we don’t see them being allowed into Turkey,” Filip Lozinski, who is managing the Norwegian Refugee Council’s aid response in northwest Syria, told IRIN.
Ege Seçkin, an analyst with the IHS think tank, said the Turkish government had reportedly authorised border guards to open fire on people attempting to cross the border last March. Last month, Amnesty International reported that Syrian hospitals in Azaz, a border town northwest of Aleppo, were treating an average of two people a day who had been shot attempting to cross into Turkey. In one case, a 10-year-old was shot in the head.
Advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, have been warning about the lack of legal routes out of Syria for several months. Rights groups and aid agencies acknowledge that neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the spill-over from Syria’s protracted civil war, but insist those trying to flee the conflict must have a safe way out.
“Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have essentially sealed their borders with Syria, leaving civilians who can pay with no choice but to use smugglers to escape, and forcing those who can’t to stay put and risk their lives under increasingly hostile skies, including in extremely dangerous border areas near Turkey,” Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher with HRW, told IRIN.
UNHCR spokesman Andreas Needham told IRIN, “Countries in the region and beyond must continue to allow access to asylum for people fleeing Syria, and not forcibly return those who are desperately seeking safety.”
But with the EU poised to begin returning refugees to Turkey and no sign of any legal routes out of Syria emerging, civilians fleeing war are increasingly trapped.