HRW 2012: EU: Provide Protection for Syrian Refugees

(Brussels) – The European Union and its member states should do more to help the thousands of Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Europe as the Syrian crisis worsens and winter sets in, Human Rights Watch said today.

Between March 2011 and September 2012, 21,000 Syrians claimed asylum in the European Union. While some EU countries offer Syrians safety, in others, including Greece, they face detention, significant obstacles in getting protection, and even forced return, Human Rights Watch said.

“Syrians seeking asylum in the European Union face a protection lottery depending on which country they reach,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should make sure that Syrian refugees and others who need protection can find a safe haven in all EU member states just as they have in countries bordering Syria.”

On December 17, 2012, 11 young Syrian men managed to swim to shore after being cast overboard by smugglers near the Greek island of Crete. Since September, at least 82 people, including Syrians, have died in two shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey in attempts to reach Greece.

To reduce the risk of such tragedies, ensure protection for those who need it, and ease the burden on neighboring countries hosting more than half a million Syrians, EU member states should take concrete steps to facilitate access to European territory, Human Rights Watch said, including simplifying onerous visa procedures and providing humanitarian visas.

The EU has not agreed to a common approach to Syrians fleeing the conflict and Human Rights Watch research indicates a patchy record for EU member states. Germany and Sweden, which have received most Syrian asylum claims, automatically grant some form of protection to Syrians. But in Greece, where almost 10,000 Syrians are known to have entered since 2011, only six have obtained some form of protection.

In countries such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Greece, Syrians are subject to immigration detention that can last from a few days to several months. Most EU states have frozen deportations of Syrians, but Greece has deported Syrians and the UK has attempted to. Syrians are also being transferred between EU countries under the Dublin II regulation, which permits EU countries to send asylum seekers back to the first EU country they entered, possibly delaying their access to protection.

“First, they [the EU] have to end what is happening in Syria and second, they have to look at us in Greece because we are suffering,” Amine S., a 23-year-old Syrian who defected from the army, told Human Rights Watch. Greek border guards detained Amine S. for 40 days after he crossed the Evros river at the Greece-Turkey border in November 2011. The Greek authorities have blocked his access to asylum procedures and he remains undocumented and in limbo.

All EU member states should follow binding European Commission directives and ensure harmonized procedures, including for lodging asylum claims. They should have common standards to qualify for protection, including subsidiary protection based on indiscriminate violence arising from armed conflict in Syria. All EU member states should also follow binding EU directives that establish common reception standards, including ending routine detention of Syrian asylum seekers.

As the number of Syrians seeking protection in the EU grows, EU member states should consider invoking an EU-wide temporary protection regime, similar to the approach already taken by Syria’s neighbors, Human Rights Watch said.

If the EU were to invoke the Temporary Protection Directive in relation to Syria, all Syrians would be granted a residence permit for the entire duration of the protection period, giving them work authorization, access to accommodation, and medical treatment. The mechanism would also encourage EU member states to resettle beneficiaries from other member states where reception capacity is overwhelmed.

Member states should in the meantime suspend forced returns of Syrians to countries neighboring Syria, given the difficulties those countries have in coping with the thousands of displaced Syrians who have fled there, Human Rights Watch said.

Most Syrians who have fled the conflict remain in the region, with half a million displaced people living in camps and other arrangements in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and North Africa. The EU and its member states have provided over 400 million Euros in humanitarian support. On December 20, the European Commission announced a new 21 million Euro aid package for Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan.

The EU should go further and move quickly to establish a Regional Protection Programme (RPP) to help those displaced in the region, Human Rights Watch said. RPPs, established in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, are designed to help protection measures in countries hosting large numbers of displaced people through local integration projects, resettlement, and other efforts.

“Generous support to help displaced Syrians in neighboring countries is greatly needed but it isn’t a substitute for providing protection here in Europe,” Sunderland said. “It’s high time the EU adopted a coordinated response to ensure Syrians can find safety.”

Access to Protection in the European Union

According to official EU statistics, member states received more than 21,000 asylum claims from Syrian nationals between March 2011 and September 2012, and Syrians formed the largest national group of asylum seekers in the EU in the third quarter of 2012.This figure may include Syrians who were in the EU before the conflict broke out, but it does not represent the actual number of Syrians who have entered the EU since the beginning of the conflict because many have simply not applied for protection; including Syrian asylum seekers in Greece, who have been prevented from lodging asylum claims.

Most asylum claims were registered in Sweden and Germany, which have adopted a policy of automatically granting at least subsidiary protection to Syrians. Many Syrians enter the EU through Greece, however, where they face a dysfunctional asylum system and are unable or unwilling to apply for protection there. Since the beginning of 2011, more than 9,000 Syrians have been arrested for allegedly unlawfully entering and staying in Greece. In roughly the same period, only 473 Syrians have lodged asylum claims there. By the end of October 2012, in Greece only one Syrian had been recognized as a refugee under the Refugee Convention since March 2011, and five had been given subsidiary protection while 133 applications had been rejected.

Most EU countries have not adopted general policies towards Syrians and evaluate Syrian asylum claims individually. Some, including Belgium, Bulgaria, and Denmark, are still issuing negative decisions for Syrian asylum seekers even though they have not carried out forced returns to Syria since 2011, leaving some of those rejected with no prospect of formal status and in limbo, Human Rights Watch said. Switzerland suspended negative decisions on all Syrian applications in June 2011.

Syrians wishing to submit asylum applications in Cyprus also face significant obstacles. The authorities there conduct substantive interviews but have issued no decisions since 2011 and cases have been pending for as long as 12 months. While authorities assess whether new elements justify review of an application after a previous rejection of protection, asylum seekers remain without a formal asylum status and at risk of detention. In October, the Cypriot Refugee Reviewing Authority rejected subsequent applications from two Syrians on the grounds that the current situation in Syria was not sufficient to justify a reexamination of theirclaims.

The vast majority of Syrians receiving some kind of protection in EU countries are given subsidiary protection – a temporary right to stay in the country given the general risk of serious harm in Syria. This status, defined in the EU’s Qualification Directive (article 15) differs from recognition as a refugee under the 1951 Convention and provides fewer – and time-bound – rights, with the prospect of being forcibly returned to Syria in the future. In some EU countries temporary residence permits do not allow for family reunification.


In countries such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Greece, Syrians face detention that can last from a few days to several months. In Greece, all third-country nationals, including Syrians, irregularly entering the country, are arrested and detained upon entry –often in very difficult conditions. A group of five Syrians, for example, are currently detained in the Orestiada police station in the Evros region of Greece pending readmission to Turkey. They have been detained since the end of September, first in the Fylakio detention center, and are on a hunger strike to protest their detention. In Cyprus, Syrians who are considered “prohibited immigrants” on public order or security grounds are also subject to detention pending deportation. A June 2012 document of the Cypriot Interior Ministry reviewed by Human Rights Watch extends the detention of a Syrian national for an additional period of six months on the grounds of his refusal “to cooperate with the proper authorities in order to return to Syria.”

In Belgium, Syrian asylum seekers at the border are detained for the duration of an accelerated examination of their asylum applications, while in Bulgaria, Syrian asylum seekers entering the territory irregularly are detained in closed centers for irregular migrants before being released and admitted to open asylum reception or transit centers. In 2011, the average time of detention for asylum seekers who applied at the border was two to five weeks.

Deportations and Transfers

Most EU member states have frozen deportations to Syria but according to the EU Border Agency, Frontex, “Greece reported a sharp increase in returns of Syrians” from April to June 2012. Official Greek statistics also indicate that 44 Syrian nationals have been deported in the first 11 months of 2012, 13 of them in November, without indicating the country to which they were being deported. The UK government attempted to deport a Syrian student in October to Syria, but the deportation was blocked by a court.

Human Rights Watch is also aware of at least five countries returning Syrians to the first EU country of entry for processing of asylum claims – Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and Norway, the latter two not EU states but signatories to the Dublin regulation. In the case of Switzerland, Human Rights Watch is aware of a return of a Syrian family to Greece in September. The destinations of the transfers from Sweden, Belgium, and Norway are unknown. Dublin transfers of Syrians at the present time can delay their ability to get protection, ignore family or other ties they may have, and may increase the likelihood they will be detained, at least temporarily.

The EU recently agreed to reform the Dublin II Regulations to block transfers to countries where an asylum seeker risks inhuman or degrading treatment, while leaving intact the general rule that the first EU country of entry is responsible for examining asylum applications. The reform followed a January 2011 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece, that the Dublin return of an Afghan asylum seeker from Belgium to Greece exposed him to degrading treatment in Greece. In December 2011, the European Union Court of Justice ruled that member states have an obligation to verify conditions in the receiving country before pursuing Dublin transfers. Most EU member states have suspended Dublin returns back to Greece.

Human Rights Watch calls on all EU member states to:

Ensure that all Syrians can get a speedy, full, and fair examination of their asylum claims;
Consider adopting temporary protection for all Syrians that would grant residence permits to Syrians and allow them to work for the duration of the temporary protection period;
In the interim, suspend all forced returns to Syria as well as to its neighboring countries;
Stop detaining Syrians for immigration-related purposes given there should be no immediate prospect of deportation to Syria;
Consider suspending Dublin transfers of Syrian asylum seekers, regardless of the EU country of destination, and take responsibility for assessing protection needs of Syrians based on the first country where the Syrian has lodged an asylum application.