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.

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