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The Syrian Refugee Crisis 101

What you need to know about “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”

By: /
10 December, 2014
The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday it was making contingency plans in case all 400,000 inhabitants of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani fled into Turkey to escape advancing Islamic State militants. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
By: Aisha Kakinuma-Hassan
Editorial Assistant at

Earlier this year, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that for the first time since the end of Second World War, the number of forcibly displaced people across the world exceeded 50 million – 6 million more than the previous year. Among them, 16.7 million people are refugees; while others are considered internally displaced, or displaced within their own state borders. Numbers have risen considerably in the past year due to the on-going conflict in Syria, which has resulted in almost 3 million people living as refugees.

The growing number of Syrian refugees has been described by António Gueterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” Yet, many advocacy groups say the international community is failing to respond appropriately to the crisis – in Syria, and worldwide.

While the refugee population escalates, their options are becoming increasingly more limited. Increased physical and political barriers established by other states prevent refugees from seeking asylum outside areas of conflict. Consequently, refugees are forced out of desperation to take part in human trafficking and smuggling to escape their homes, further exacerbating the crisis.

Currently, response to the situation is lacking, or according to Amnesty International, “an abject failure” and the international community, specifically Western countries, are reluctant to host more refugees.

As country representatives from around the world meet this week in Geneva to discuss resettlement options for Syrians, here is what you need to know about the current crisis.

Who is considered a refugee? How are they different from an asylum seeker?

In 1951, the United Nations approved the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR), a multilateral treaty defining a refugee, their rights, and the responsibilities of host countries that grant asylum.

According to the treaty, a refugee is someone outside of his or her home country who is unable or unwilling to return due to fear of being persecuted based on race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. This is a status granted to an individual by the United Nations or a host country (which may have their own criteria for who qualifies to be a refugee).

An asylum seeker on the other hand, is someone who is seeking protection, but has not yet been granted the formal status of a refugee. As a result, the official number of people who meet the criteria for refugees but do not have legal status is expected to be much higher.

Where are the majority of refugees from?

By the end of 2013, the top three source countries of refugees were Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. Combined, these three countries also account for more than half (53 percent) of the population of refugees worldwide. Afghanistan in particular, which has endured decades of conflict, has topped the list for over 30 consecutive years.

Which countries are hosting refugees?

Developing regions have always disproportionately hosted more refugees, and the trend continues to increase. Presently, developing regions host over 86 percent of the world’s refugees, compared to 70 percent, 10 years ago.

Last year, Pakistan, Iran and Lebanon were the top three host countries for refugees. This is primarily due to geography. With little money and resources, refugees seek asylum in neighbouring countries. However, as these countries are short on resources themselves, they are reluctant to take in refugees in such large numbers.

Meanwhile, wealthier countries host the least number of refugees. The population of refugees in the top OECD countries that host refugees – Germany, United States, France, United Kingdom and Canada — is less than half of the refugee population in Pakistan. However, some of these countries are the biggest financial contributors to the UNHCR, which provides humanitarian aid to IDPs, asylum seekers and refugees. These countries also help fund aid projects in host countries, as seen recently in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

What is significant about the recent Syrian refugee crisis?

Before the civil war just two years ago, Syria was 36th on the list of refugee source countries. By the end of 2013, it was 2nd and is predicted to surpass (if it hasn’t already), Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The refugee crisis in Syria is significant because of the alarming rate at which the number of refugees is increasing, while their options are decreasing.

Neighbouring countries Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, who have kept their borders open throughout the Syrian crisis, are struggling immensely due to the large influx of refugees. Overcrowding in refugee camps, schools and medical facilities are putting a strain on their already scarce resources. Lebanon for example, hosts over 1.6 million refugees, almost a quarter of their population, which has cost their economy approximately $7.5 billion so far.

As a result, these countries are beginning to limit the number of refugees crossing their borders. Lebanon announced in October that it would stop accepting refugees except for extreme humanitarian cases, turning away 60 percent of the refugees attempting to cross the border.

Although the UNHCR has specifically called upon wealthier countries to help alleviate the refugee crisis, the response has been inadequate. Countries outside of the region of conflict have agreed to host approximately 50,000 people – less than 2 percent of the total population of Syrian refugees.

For some countries, like Canada, there is a major discrepancy between what is expected of them and what they have and can commit to, to assist in the refugee crisis. Spokesperson for the Immigration Minister of Canada stated that Canada has been a “world leader” in response to the crisis in Syria, as the country has agreed to resettle 1, 300 refugees. Yet so far, less than 200 people have actually been resettled in Canada, and this includes Syrians who were already in Canada when the war broke out, or were able to arrive in Canada on their own. (Canada’s pledge to resettle 1,300 refugees is out of almost 3 million Syrians seeking refuge.) Only 10 people have arrived to Canada from refugee camps in the Middle East, according to the CBC. Meanwhile, Sweden and Germany have resettled tens of thousands of refugees since 2011.

With very little options, Syrians have no choice but to remain in their country. In November, the Norwegian Refugee Council and International Rescue Committee reported that the number of Syrian refugees able to leave the country has declined dramatically from 150,000 each month in 2013 to 18,453 in October, 21014 – an 88 percent drop.


Why and how are countries denying refugees?

For many countries, a major concern for hosting refugees is the effect it has on the economy. As demonstrated by Lebanon earlier, less economically developed countries that host most of the world’s refugees are struggling to meet the demands of not only the large influx of refugees, but also their own population. The governments of these states may feel the easiest way to combat this is by closing physical borders altogether. In the past year, Turkey and Jordan have closed numerous borders with Syria, while Greece constructed a 10.5km fence along the Greek-Turkish border to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the country.

Another, more recent source of concern is the issue of national security. Concerns over terrorism have escalated in the past decade, influencing how refugees are perceived. Refugees are often mischaracterized as illegal immigrants, common criminals or potential terrorists – “potential threats” that countries are reluctant to accept into their borders.

To avoid the risk of a threat, refugees are subjected to rigorous background checks and assessments – particularly in Western countries. Migration policies have become stricter, more expensive and more time-consuming to follow, in order to deter potential refugees. The United States is also known to “cherry pick” which refugees are allowed to enter the country, based on their level of education and whether they have family ties, as opposed to assisting those who need it the most.

Countries are also refusing refugees based on other humanitarian grounds — such as human smuggling. Refugees often pay large amounts to be illegally transported across sea borders — a dangerous, often fatal operation that is becoming more common. To discourage this, countries have enforced harsh laws like the United Kingdom, who have refused to assist rescue operations, or Australia, who will deny resettlement altogether to those arriving illegally by boat.

How has Canada responded to Syria’s refugee crisis?

Historically, Canada is a country strongly associated with welcoming refugees. In recent years however, the government has increased security at the borders and revised its migration policies in order to curb the number of refugees entering the country.

In the last two decades, the Canadian government has narrowed down the definition of a refugee, and has cut down the period in which a refugee can make their claim from 90 to 60 days – an “unrealistic” timeframe, according to the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, considering the amount of time and money required to gather required documents to fill out paperwork. The average time for applications to be process has also increased, from eight to nine months, to up to two to three years. In comparison, refugees in Sweden can be granted residential status in just a few months.

Canada also relies heavily on private organizations and church groups to sponsor the resettlement of refugees, but due to recent policy changes that cut funding for refugee health benefits, they are struggling to make up for these costs and meet the demand of refugees hoping to resettle in Canada.

In 2008, Canada was second on the list of industrialized destination countries for refugees in 2008, but has since gone down to 16th place in 2013. Despite policy reforms however, Canada still has the reputation as one of the most migrant-friendly countries in the world.

What rights do refugees have?

Although their role in society may be restricted, host countries provide refugees with basic necessities such as food, shelter and medical care. In the United Kingdom, although refugees and asylum seekers have limited to no rights to work, the government provides some cash support. In the United States, agencies such as the International Rescue Committee have a contract with the Department of State to provide for basic necessities in the first 90 days after a refugee’s arrival.

Because the status of refugees is often uncertain, the extent of their rights is often arbitrary or non-existent. In between crossing borders and applying for refugee status, refugees are often held in overcrowded emergency shelters or settlements, some comparable to detention centres. Although organizations have been formed to fight this and ensure that the basic human rights of refugees are protected, such as the European Union’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS), many countries have yet to implement these standards.

Countries are also more concerned with protecting the enforcement of their laws over the rights of refugees. For example, Australia has enforced a system of mandatory detention. Any non-citizen of Australia without a valid visa, even if they are a refugee, is automatically detained in a detention centre for months or even years with no opportunity to appeal. Even children, which Australia’s human rights laws state should only be detained as a “last resort”, are automatically detained on arrival. This goes against one of the articles in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Australia has ratified, which states that countries “shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence”.

Another fundamental principle of the 1951 Convention is non-refoulment. Countries that have ratified the treaty are not to expel or return a refugee to a state where his or her freedom would be threatened. This is also considered to be part of international law. However, there have been instances where countries have disregarded this, for example, Australia turning its back on migrants arriving by boat.

Although there are international and domestic laws and policies to protect the rights of refugees, very little is done to enforce them.

What else can be done to alleviate the refugee crisis?

The UNHCR’s primary goal is the voluntarily return of refugees to their own country. However, due to the complexity and long-lasting nature of the conflicts that drove them from their homes in the first place, this is often unlikely. As well as prolonged violence and instability, a lack of trust in new political systems has resulted in Afghanistan and Somalia’s large refugee population, as many are reluctant to return to their home countries. 2013 saw one of the lowest levels of refugee returns in over 20 years.

To meet their goal of resettling 100,000 Syrian refugees by 2016, the UNHCR hopes that countries will be open to alternative options to welcome refugees into their country. For example, creating programs to reunite refugees with families in host countries, granting more bridging visas, scholarships for students from refugee source countries to study overseas and more medical evacuation for life-threatening cases.

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