Syrian Refugees: Living in limbo


Syrian Refugees: Living in limbo

The Economist - Photo from Reuters, 17 Jul 2013

At a school in Akkar in northern Lebanon, a sign at the entrance once read “Centre for refugees”. But the word “refugee” has been scribbled out, and replaced by “visitors”.

The number of Syrians in Lebanon has soared from 5,000 less than two years ago to more than half a million today. In total, almost 1.8m Syrians have fled their country for its neighbouring states and beyond. But once arrived in their supposed havens, they often find themselves in legal limbo. No country has granted them official refugee status. To make matters worse, new regulations issued by the Egyptian foreign ministry now require all Syrians to apply for visas before arrival. Last week, a planeload of Syrians was refused entry to Egypt and sent back to their war-torn country.

The 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees lays out the rights of refugees and the obligations of host countries. Egypt is a signatory but its latest move—which officials say is only temporary in the wake of the coup against Muhammad Morsi, the former president—goes against the treaty, and the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits relocating people to countries where they could be tortured. Neither Iraq nor Jordan nor Lebanon, together home to over a million refugees, has signed up to the convention. And while Turkey is a signatory, it has imposed geographic limitations on its applicability: only European refugees are accepted. It has severely restricted the number of Syrians being let in, and is instead helping with refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border.

The law in Lebanon and Turkey calls for refugees recognised by the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to be resettled in a third country within less than 15 months. But less than 1% of refugees worldwide are ever resettled. Given the number of Syrian refugees, UNHCR says resettlement is only an option for the most vulnerable; a few hundred cases are now being considered. In Jordan, those registered with UNHCR are allowed to remain for a further six months. But amid Syria’s deepening crisis nothing guarantees the enforcement of such rules. In Turkey, a law drawn up in April offering Syrian refugees some of the rights afforded to them by the 1951 convention will only come into effect next year. Lebanon is still in the process of renegotiating its memorandum of understanding with UNHCR.

In the meantime, Syrians face growing hostility in their host countries. In Egypt they have been accused of supporting Mr Morsi, since he recently denounced President Bashar Assad's regime. In Lebanon, residents in Saida, a port city in the south, accuse them of fighting on the side of Sheikh Assir, a local Salafist who has railed against Mr Assad and who recently clashed with the Lebanese army. And in southern Turkey, some say Syrians should be subject to strict controls in the wake of the June bombings in Reyhanli.

As Syria’s civil war continues to rage, “the most important consideration is that people are allowed across borders, not forcibly returned, receive shelter, medical care and other life-saving and sustaining assistance,” says Melissa Fleming of UNHCR. As a report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, an NGO, notes, while many countries’ laws may grant refugees de facto protection, “their status is open to interpretation and to revocation”. Egypt is only the latest country to fall into this category. Human Rights Watch, a New York based watchdog, has accused Iraq, Jordan and Turkey of sending Syrians home, too. But the implications of the legal limbo in which many Syrian refugees live are also serious, and long-lasting. A decade after fleeing the American-led war on their country, Iraqis strewn across the region find that their ambiguous legal status continues to hamper their ability to get on with their lives.