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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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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