Denied entry and pushed back: Syrian refugees trying to reach the EU

Briefing Notes, 15 November 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 15 November 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is greatly concerned over reports of some EU countries placing barriers to entry or forcibly returning asylum-seekers including people who have fled the conflict in Syria. UNHCR is calling, globally as well as in the European Union, for a shift away from border protection to protection of people. If practices to prevent asylum-seekers from accessing territory and procedures are taking place, UNHCR calls on states to cease them immediately. Push-backs and prevention of entry can put asylum-seekers at further risk and expose them to additional trauma.

In Bulgaria UNHCR is seeking more information from the authorities on their reported activities at the border to stem the flow of refugees into the country. Media reports say Bulgaria turned back 100 migrants at the border over the weekend and deployed some 1,200 police officers to the border region. Introducing barriers, like fences or other deterrents, may lead people to undertake more dangerous crossings and further place refugees at the mercy of smugglers.

UNHCR is also concerned over similar reports of asylum seekers being pushed back from Greece to Turkey. UNHCR has asked the Greek authorities to investigate the fate of 150 Syrian refugees, including many families with children, who were reported to have been denied entry in Evros on the 12th of November. UNHCR received information from villagers of the group being detained and transported in police vehicles to an unknown location, although they have not been transferred to a reception center. Their current whereabouts is unknown to us.

In Cyprus, UNHCR has received reports of Syrians arriving irregularly by boat in the northern part of the country and being returned to Turkey following a brief detention. In the southern part of Cyprus, Syrians are increasingly facing difficulties with reception and assistance, and UNHCR is in discussion with the authorities over this issue. As of end September there had been less than 400 asylum applications in the Republic of Cyprus this year.

UNHCR is calling for a global moratorium on any return of Syrians to neighbouring countries. This would represent a concrete gesture of solidarity with these countries that currently host over 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Turkey is currently hosting the largest number of Syrians in Europe, with over 500,000 registered refugees. Returning Syrian refugees to Turkey or other neighbouring countries only adds to the challenges faced by these governments and local communities to support and provide assistance to refugees. Likewise, EU states with external borders cannot be left to shoulder this influx alone. EU responsibility-sharing needs to be demonstrated by greater intra-EU mobility and openness to genuine burden-sharing outside the existing mechanisms.

Persons who are found to be in need of international protection should have access to lasting solutions. This could include mechanisms for an equitable distribution of those recognized as refugees or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection within the EU. It could also be evacuation to a designated Evacuation Transit Centre based on existing models from where resettlement efforts could be undertaken both to European countries and non-European countries. In addition, UNHCR welcomes the discretion exercised by some EU countries not to return all those requesting international protection to their first point of entry in the EU and appeals to others to follow suit, in an effort to demonstrate a measure of solidarity with these EU border countries. UNHCR also calls for the application of all the "Dublin" criteria, including those designed to unite families.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Amman, Peter Kessler on mobile +962 79 631 79 01
  • In Budapest, Ariane Rummery (Regional) on mobile: +36 30 530 9633
  • In Ankara, Selin Unal on mobile +90 530 282 7862
  • In Athens, Ketty Kehayioylou on mobile +30 694 02 77 485
  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • Dan McNorton on mobile +41 79 217 3011
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Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

Abdu finds his voice in Germany

When bombs started raining down on Aleppo, Syria, in 2012, the Khawan family had to flee. According to Ahmad, the husband of Najwa and father of their two children, the town was in ruins within 24 hours.

The family fled to Lebanon where they shared a small flat with Ahmad's two brothers and sisters and their children. Ahmad found sporadic work which kept them going, but he knew that in Lebanon his six-year-old son, Abdu, who was born deaf, would have little chance for help.

The family was accepted by Germany's Humanitarian Assistance Programme and resettled into the small central German town of Wächtersbach, near Frankfurt am Main. Nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges and a forest, the village has an idyllic feel.

A year on, Abdu has undergone cochlear implant surgery for the second time. He now sports two new hearing aids which, when worn together, allow him to hear 90 per cent. He has also joined a regular nursery class, where he is learning for the first time to speak - German in school and now Arabic at home. Ahmed is likewise studying German in a nearby village, and in two months he will graduate with a language certificate and start looking for work. He says that he is proud at how quickly Abdu is learning and integrating.

Abdu finds his voice in Germany

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

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