Aid agencies, human rights organizations and local government officials are increasingly concerned about thousands of people who have fled violence in Syria only to end up stuck at border crossings waiting to enter countries to seek asylum.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), local authorities in Turkey report that more than 10,000 Syrians are located at various points on the Syrian side of the border, many of them waiting to enter Turkey.
Except for medical emergencies, the border crossing between Syria and Iraq’s border district of al-Qa’im has been closed since 21 October, according to an Iraqi deputy minister, a district official and a UNHCR representative stationed at the border.
Syrian activist Rima Flihan, a member of the local coordination committees (LCC) who now lives in Jordan, told IRIN Syrian civilians have also been turned back by Jordanian authorities at the border and at the airport. She said Syrians have had similar trouble entering Libya.
“There are many countries preventing Syrian people from entering their countries,” she said.
In some countries on the Eastern edge of the European Union (EU), rejection rates for Syrians turning up at their borders are more than 50 per cent, according to UNHCR.
“In addition, some countries are more likely to give Syrians a tolerated stay rather than actual protection,” spokesperson Adrian Edwards told a press briefing in Geneva on 16 October. “There is therefore a risk that people in need of protection will be denied the rights to which they are entitled under EU or international law.”
Turkey is already home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in camps and an estimated 70,000 elsewhere in the country. Iraq is struggling to contain violence on its own territory, as it recovers from civil war. Both governments say they are restricting the number of refugees they admit every day because of limited capacity to host them.
Some 7,600 refugees are living in two refugee camps in Iraq’s al-Qa’im District, in addition to public buildings, including schools.
“But both camps are totally over-capacity,” said Haider Al-Fahad, officer-in-charge for UNHCR in al-Qa’im. UNHCR is currently levelling the ground for a third camp, which will have an initial capacity of 5,000 and eventually 20,000 people, but Al-Fahad said it would likely be three weeks before it could begin welcoming people.
In the meantime, the government is only allowing what it calls emergency or “humanitarian cases”: people who are sick, elderly or injured. But Iraqi deputy minister for migration and the displaced, Salam Dawood Al Khafagy, insisted to IRIN that, subject to cabinet approval, "the Iraqi government will open the border for everyone in case of an emergency to save their lives.”
Even before the recent closure, Iraq admitted only 100-120 refugees a day because it “makes it easier for us to control the situation and to make sure each of them receives the needed support,” Al Khafagy said. The Iraqi cabinet has ordered that Syrian men aged 15-50 not be allowed in “for security reasons”, he added.
Mahmoud Shakir, al-Qaim District’s deputy director of Syrian refugee affairs, estimates there are about 1,000 displaced Syrians in the closest Syrian village of Albu Kamal, wanting to cross into Iraq, but currently living with relatives or out in the open. (Observers question whether they are displaced Syrians or simply residents of Albu Kamal who want to re-unite with relatives belonging to the same tribe on the other side of the border.)
|Over 10,000 desperate Syrians fleeing the terror of aerial bombardment and shelling are stuck on the Iraqi and Turkish borders, many living in miserable conditions.|
Al-Fahad said community and religious leaders used to organize lists of 120 candidates to cross every day, in accordance with the government limit. But in recent days, he said, people have stopped approaching the border because they know it is now closed.
The presence of people at the border also fluctuates based on the situation in Syria: “People appear when there is shelling,” said Niyazi Maharramov, operations manager for UNHCR in Iraq. “When there is no shelling, there are no people.” He said he was at the border on 22 October and found “nobody” on the other side.
In Turkey, which had previously referred to 100,000 as a psychological limit on the number of refugees it can accept, the government has been admitting an average of about 500 new arrivals a day, according to UN updates.
In addition to 14 Turkish camps already up and running in seven provinces, a new camp in Sanliurfa Province is opening soon with a capacity of 11,000. In the meantime, the Turkish Red Crescent Society began dropping off basic assistance at the demarcation line dividing Turkey and Syria in August.
The delay in admitting the asylum seekers has prompted protests from various sides.
A 14 October report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Iraqi and Turkish governments to immediately open their border crossings to those waiting, saying failure to do so was a breach of international law.
“Over 10,000 desperate Syrians fleeing the terror of aerial bombardment and shelling are stuck on the Iraqi and Turkish borders, many living in miserable conditions,” Gerry Simpson, senior refugees researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.
HRW said some Syrians have been staying in an olive grove near the Bab-al-Hawa crossing (leading to Turkey’s Hatay Province) for weeks, at times under heavy rain. At the Bab al-Salam crossing (into Turkey’s Kilis Province), Syrians told HRW they have regularly protested at the border fence, begging to enter Turkey.
“We should find a solution to the number of people waiting on the border,” said Idil Eser, the coordinator of psychological support projects to refugees in Turkey through the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, an Istanbul-based human rights organization. “It looks as if the number of people will increase… Winter is coming. Those people waiting on the border are getting weaker and weaker. They are not as well-nourished as the [ones who arrived before them].”
|Syrians' living quarters as they wait to enter Turkey|
She suggested some kind of buffer zone was necessary to give aid workers the safety and security needed to assist those on the other side of the border. But some aid groups are already crossing the border to help people on the other side.
The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a Turkish aid group, has been providing food and medical aid to Syrians waiting at Bab-al-Hawa and Bab-al-Salam, where cholera and other diseases were on the verge of breaking out, according to Durmus Aydin, IHH vice-president for communications.
But the UN says some of those on the Syrian side have no desire to enter Turkey: “They find the border areas safer than their villages and because of the assistance provided at zero point they prefer to travel back and forth between the borders and their villages,” a 6 October update said. Dozens of refugees in Turkey, sometimes more than 200, return to Syria voluntarily every day.
Shakir, the local official at al-Qaim, said the Iraqi government’s policy raised concerns.
“We hear the sound of bombs very clearly every day,” he told IRIN. He said there was bombardment in Albu Kamal, 15-20km from the Iraqi border, on 23 October, but others at the border said there had been no sound of shelling that day.
"An urgent solution must be found quickly to save Syrian refugees who are still on the other side. Otherwise more people will be killed because of the bombs,” Shakir said.
Maharramov, of UNHCR Iraq, said people may be at risk of shelling in Syrian villages, but that there was no shelling of people gathered at the border. Still, he said UNHCR plans to raise the issue of limited admissions at the highest levels of the Iraqi government.
UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond said neighbouring countries, which he said have already been extremely generous in welcoming refugees, have a right to ensure the safety of their borders, by conducting detailed interviews and screening measures which may slow the admission process. But those measures, he insisted, must be consistent with international law.
“The security situation in the region is certainly not optimal. They have to watch their borders. It’s their right,” he told IRIN. “But we want to work with them in seeking the kinds of solutions that ensure that everyone in need of protection gets it, while also meeting their legitimate security concerns. Our priority is keeping borders open.”
He urged more funding to support neighbouring countries in taking in Syrian refugees. The UN appeal for US$488 million to help Syrian refugees is about one third funded.