EU must open doors to avoid Syrian refugee catastrophe, says UN

Colin Firth, Michael Palin and Grayson Perry condemn lack of British action over what David Milliband calls 'the defining humanitarian crisis of our time'

The Refugee Council's letter to David Cameron

The crisis posed by millions of refugees from Syria's civil war flooding into neighbouring countries is becoming a humanitarian and political catastrophe that can only be eased if Europe opens its doors, the UN and European commission have warned.

More than 2.1 million refugees have been registered by the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) in Syria's four neighbouring states; hundreds of thousands more are known to be living outside Syria's borders without access to aid.

The scale of the crisis is perhaps the most acute since the end of the second world war. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), described the ever-deteriorating situation in Syria as "the defining humanitarian crisis of our time".

The UNHCR, European commission and British Refugee Council have urged EU leaders to acknowledge the exceptional crisis posed by the Syrian civil war and accept the temporary settlement of Syrian refugees inside their borders – relaxing "fortress" policies designed to keep migrants out of Europe.

The UN has issued an urgent call to resettle 30,000 of the most vulnerable Syrians worldwide – a call that remains unmet as the exodus from Syria into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq fast outpaces the capacity to provide for them. The UK government has refused to take part in the resettlement scheme, calling the idea tokenistic and stressing the importance of the £500m of aid it has sent to the region.

António Guterres, UN commissioner for refugees, told the Guardian: "While countries neighbouring the conflict are being asked to keep their borders open, I find it disconcerting how many Syrians struggle to find protection in Europe, with reports of people being pushed back from a number of borders. And all this is happening although the overall numbers are small in comparison – Turkey alone has received 10 times the number of Syrian refugees as all EU member states together.

"I have been repeatedly calling on all countries, particularly in Europe and the extended Middle East, to allow Syrians to access asylum and enjoy quality protection."

Michele Cercone, spokesperson for the European commissioner for home affairs, said member states could not be coerced to accept the resettlement programme, but the commission had offered €6,000 (£5,000) towards every refugee a country accepted. "If all member states would get involved into an EU resettlement exercise and make available a proportionate number of places, we would be able to resettle thousands people more from refugee camps."

The EU has stressed the importance of aid but has resisted sharing the vast burden of refugees. While it has applied enormous pressure on Turkey to keep its borders open – Turkey has so far accepted about 600,000 people – it is working as quickly as possible to create a network of fences, patrols and policies to keep them from entering Europe. The EU has spent millions on border controls between Turkey and Greece.

About 64,000 Syrians – 2.4% of the total number who have fled – have sought asylum in Europe, with 60% of those applications made in Sweden and Germany.

The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, revealed last week that the UK had taken in 1,500 displaced Syrians through regular asylum routes, but that number falls far short of demands of the UN.

"The neighbouring countries are beyond what in the west would be considered the breaking point," Miliband said. "The refugee influx into Lebanon – more than 800,000 out of a population of 4.5  million – is the equivalent of 60 million people coming to the US. The cost of the crisis to the Lebanese economy alone is estimated by the World Bank at $7.5bn (£4.5bn). It is time for the rest of the world to step up and for the US to lead by example."

Frustrated by the government's position, the Refugee Council has published a strongly worded letter in the Guardian addressed to David Cameron, stating "aid is not enough". The letter – signed by Colin and Livia Firth, Emma Thompson, Michael Palin, Dame Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry and Juliet Stevenson – says: "So far, 18 countries have responded by pledging resettlement places for Syrian refugees. We're ashamed Britain isn't one of them."

Vincent Cochetel, the director of UNHCR for Europe, described the UK's response as "timid" and "not good enough". Refugees - Afghanis and Somalis as well as Syrians - fleeing some of the most violent conflicts of our aged are simply being pushed into dangerous, illegal journeys to find safety.

As the inevitable exodus into Jordan, Turkey and the Kurdish north of Iraq continues, so enormous humanitarian demands grow.

The unresolved refugee crisis has been particularly destablising in Lebanon, whose fragile sectarian mix is being increasingly unsettled by the influx of primarily Sunni Muslim refugees. The Lebanese government has refused to allow refugee camps or anything resembling a permanent shelter to be constructed on its territory, fearing deeply ingrained sectarian tensions will be inflamed.

As the war has intensified, regional backers have increasingly shored up support for their proxies. The Alawite-led regime of Bashar al-Assad is resolutely backed by Iran and Russia, while the predominantly Sunni opposition is supported equally strongly by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other Gulf states.

Syria has become an unflinching contest for regional supremacy, anchored largely by the ancient regional power struggle between Tehran and Riyadh, but fuelled by more contemporary grievances.

The volatile sectarian power tussle leaves little concern for the health and safety of millions of refugees, the majority of whom are women and children.

"We are talking about people that are in dire need," Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said, arguing that the British government was being led too strongly by domestic pressures on migration. "[What] we are seeing from the camps is eye-wateringly scary. It is just not a sustainable environment for people who cannot look out for themselves."

In a cafe in Istanbul, the Guardian found Syrian refugees discussing the response of Europe to the crisis, and the options available to them as a result. Because Turkey offers sanctuary but no permanent residency, refugees cannot work legally. Men in the cafe talk about travelling illegally to countries such as Germany or Sweden, which have very generous policies towards Syrians who make it to their borders. But there are almost no legal routes to either country from Syria or Turkey. At least Britain's position is honest, says one man: "They don't want any Syrians."

One man, Tarek, describes how he has tried and failed three times to cross into Europe through Bulgaria, each time being caught by Bulgarian border guards and "pushed back" into Turkey. If this was on Bulgarian territory, it was a breach of international refugee law. Illegal push backs from Greece and Italy have been widely reported by human rights groups.

This journey has separated Tarek from his wife, Yasmin, who is nine months' pregnant and their four-year-old son.

The Guardian found Yasmin in Harmanli detention camp in Bulgaria where she and her son are living in a portable building with three other families, surviving on one meal a day.

Back in Istanbul, Tarek says he will keep trying to get into Bulgaria to find his wife: "We suffer twice, first in Syria and now as refugees. I feel like I'm fighting the world to be with my family."

Syrians are not alone in their perceptions of the European asylum system as a giant trap. For refugees from across Asia and North Africa, including Afghans, Somalis and Eritreans, it is now almost impossible to appeal for asylum in Europe without travelling illegally along dangerous routes.

Those who do reach Europe are further confined by the Dublin agreement, which stipulates that asylum seekers must remain in their first country of entry, despite the differing conditions that refugees face across the EU. Italy, Greece and Bulgaria have all been widely criticised for their treatment of asylum seekers, but they say their geographical position means they are bearing an unfair share of responsibility for coping with refugee flows.

Cochetel said traumatised refugees were being put at risk by European policy. He argues that there must be wider reform of asylum policy in Europe, as Syria's neighbours cannot be expected to bear the full humanitarian weight of a conflict that offers little hope resolution.

"It's not good enough; its timid," Chochetel said: "Five hundred in France, 10 in Hungary, 90 in Ireland, none in the UK. We need to wake up to the situation. Everybody was hoping for a quick fix, but the reality of the conflict is that we know many people will never go home, not just because their house is gone but because the infrastructure is gone."


Martin Chulov in Beirut and Harriet Grant

The GuardianTramp

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