UNHCR urges countries to enable safe passage, keep borders open for Syrian refugees

Briefing Notes, 18 October 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 18 October 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

With growing numbers of Syrians seeking safety in Europe, UNHCR is concerned about severe difficulties they face during their passage and at borders. This includes shocking cases of hundreds of Syrians drowning at sea and incidents where Syrians have been dangerously hindered in their journeys.

UNHCR is deeply saddened that only 200 people survived a boat carrying between 400 and 500 Syrians and Palestinians from Syria when it sank in the Mediterranean on 11 October. We are disturbed that the cause of the tragedy could be attributed to shots that were fired after the boat left Libya, injuring four passengers and damaging the hull.

Growing numbers of Syrians are crossing the Mediterranean from Egypt to Italy, citing increasing anxiety over their security as well as incidents of physical assault, verbal threat, detention and deportation. The Egyptian Government estimates that 250,000 to 300,000 Syrians currently reside in Egypt, of whom 122,774 are registered with UNHCR. We fully recognize and commend Egypt's generous hosting of so many Syrian refugees.

Between January and 30 September, 7,557 Syrians and Palestinians arrived along the coast of Italy, 6,233 since early August. Most of the Syrian refugees that reach Italy continue on to other countries in Europe to seek asylum.

Of particular concern is the increasing number of unaccompanied children making the voyage. As the cost of travel can range from $2,000-5,000 per person, some families opt to send their children alone, or with relatives or friends.

And not all boats make it. On 11 October, a boat that had set out from Alexandria with an estimated 112 passengers, 40 of whom were Syrian, sunk before it reached the open sea. Twelve bodies were recovered, including five children. The survivors are being held in detention facilities in two police stations.

UNHCR notes with concern that over 800 Syrians have been arrested in Egypt since August for attempting to illegally depart and 144, including 44 children, have been deported to third countries. Although charges have not been laid, approximately 589 Syrians remain in administrative detention, including women and 84 children. UNHCR is seeking access to the detained in order to properly verify numbers, conditions, and needs, or provide legal assistance.

UNHCR recognizes that a number of countries in North Africa are increasingly affected by the displacement caused by the Syria crisis, placing additional demands on their infrastructure and resources. Given the ongoing and dramatic needs of Syrian refugees, which are likely to continue and grow in the immediate future, reinforcement of capacity to receive them in North African countries is increasingly urgent.

UNHCR is working with governments, the EU and other partners to put in place a comprehensive response to saving lives of refugees and migrants at sea. UNHCR is calling for a number of measures to prevent further tragedies and increase responsibility-sharing.

UNHCR calls upon States beyond Syria's immediate region to explore concrete and meaningful ways of expressing solidarity, notably with a view to sharing the immense burden and protection responsibilities currently being assumed by the countries neighbouring Syria and its vicinity, such as Egypt. Warning signs in some hosting countries testify to the potentially destabilizing impact of the Syrian refugee influx that aggravates the already severe political, security, and economic repercussions of the Syria conflict.

Apart from much-needed solidarity through financial and other contributions to affected countries in the region towards addressing the humanitarian and emergency development needs, solidarity could take the form of humanitarian admission, resettlement, simplified and expedited family reunion, facilitated visa procedures and the extension of student or employment-related visas. UNHCR welcomes a number of offers in this regard, but urges other States to join this effort.

UNHCR further calls on countries beyond the region to ensure appropriate treatment and protection for Syrians by ensuring access to territory and to swift and fair asylum procedures. Generous approaches to protection are needed, including non-penalization of those arriving without identity documents (or otherwise in an irregular manner) and high refugee recognition rates coupled with the granting of associated rights. States could also offer flexibility in the application of family reunification criteria and procedures, as would be the dispensing with certain visa requirements and facilitation of the entry of Syrians for work, study, family or humanitarian purposes under national programmes.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Geneva, Melissa Fleming on +41 79 557 557 9122
  • Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • In Rome, Barbara Molinario on mobile +39 338 546 2932
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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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