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(New York) – Syria’s neighbors should keep their borders open to the large and growing number of refugees fleeing Syria, while donor countries should generously support them. Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon have mostly opened their borders to more than 200,000 refugees from neighboring Syria, but in the past week some officials in these countries have said they are reaching their limit and may soon close their borders.

Despite the pressure of numbers, refugees from Syria should be allowed to cross into neighboring countries and remain there legally without fear of detention, confinement in closed camps, or deportation, Human Rights Watch said.

“For many years, Syria kept its borders open to Palestinians, Lebanese, and Iraqis fleeing conflict in their countries and allowed them free movement,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch. “Today, as Syrians flee horrific violence, neighboring countries should extend them the same hospitality.”

As the numbers of refugees have grown and the pace of arrivals has accelerated, host governments have felt increased pressure to block refugees and try to minimize their presence by keeping them in closed encampment or by not providing them secure legal status. The Turkish foreign minister has said that the United Nations should create camps in a so-called safe area inside Syria. If such a safe area were to be established, it should not be used to prevent people from fleeing Syria to seek asylum in other countries.

So far, Syria’s neighboring countries – with the exception of Israel – have mostly kept their borders open. Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Israel would prevent “waves of refugees” from fleeing Syria to the occupied Golan Heights. Such a step would constitute unlawful forced return to persecution, Human Rights Watch said.

About 9,000 Syrians are amassed on the Syrian side of the Turkish border because screening procedures at two key border crossings have ground to a virtual halt. On August 20, 2012, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told the daily Hurriyet that the UN should establish camps inside Syria, saying that Turkey is having difficulty hosting the 65,000 Syrian refugees who were already there and suggesting that Turkey could accept no more than 100,000. Since Davutoglu’s statement, the number of Syrian refugees registered in Turkey has grown by about 15,000.

Hundreds of Syrians are also clustered on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border, where they are at risk of air and artillery attacks. Many are stranded at the bus station on the Syrian side of the Bab al-Salama crossing because the Iraqi government closed crossing point at al-Qaim. They are sleeping on the pavement in what has become a makeshift camp. Iraqi authorities have announced that they will re-open the border after expanding the capacity of a camp at al-Qaim, though an official at Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration told Human Rights Watch on August 27 that the ministry had not recommended closing the border and described the decision as purely a “security measure.” An official from a nongovernmental organization involved in the camp’s administration told Human Rights Watch that the camp was not filled to capacity.

“Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon deserve great credit for having kept their borders open to Syrian refugees,” Frelick said. “As violence in Syria escalates and the number and pace of refugee arrivals accelerates, it is all the more critical for borders to remain open and the fundamental right to seek asylum outside one’s country to be respected.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 200,000 refugees from Syria have been registered or are in the process of being registered in the region, with a dramatic increase in the rate of the new arrivals in late August. The actual number of refugees may be much higher, as many have not registered.

Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkeyhave granted Syrians and others fleeing Syria various types of legal status, including short-term renewable visas, asylum-seeker status, and temporary protection. However, none have formally recognized Syrians as refugees and some have either restricted their movement to refugee camps from the beginning or have recently begun to do so. Most of the host countries refer to Syrians as “guests” or “brothers” rather than refugees, the latter being a term with a distinct meaning in international law that carries with it specific rights.

To date, the international community has donated US$64 million to UNHCR, in response to the UN refugee agency’s appeal for US$193 million to respond to the crisis, about a third of total needs. In addition, the Arab League and the United States have each pledged US$100 million in assistance to host countries, while Saudi Arabia has raised at least US$72.5 million. It is essential for donor countries to generously assist countries that are host to the largest numbers of refugees, including providing support to open camps, Human Rights Watch said.

Turkey is host to the largest number of refugees, about 74,000 as of August 27. The authorities have opened nine camps near the border and are building seven more. Turkey has allowed the refugees in the camps to come and go for short periods of time, and has informally permitted refugees who decline humanitarian assistance to live outside the camps.

Jordan has registered or was in the process of registering about 61,000 refugees, as of August 24. The authorities have opened a refugee camp at al-Za’atri, with about 16,500 refugees. When Human Rights Watch visited al-Za’atri camp on August 8, Syrian refugees there told Human Rights Watch they were not allowed to leave the camp. A small number told Human Rights Watch that people who had found a Jordanian guarantor and who knew influential Jordanians had been able to leave the camp permanently. According to media reports, on August 13, Jordanian riot police prevented 60 refugees from leaving the camp. On August 26, a government spokesman, Samih Maaytah, told the Jordan Times that the number of refugees fleeing the violence “has surpassed what the camps can tolerate and necessitates extra efforts beyond the capacity of the institutions managing the camps.”

Iraq has about 16,000 Syrian refugees. About three-fourths are under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, which has kept its border with Syria open and set up open refugee camps from which refugees are free to come and go or which they can leave entirely.In Anbar governorate, authorities of the Iraqi central government have periodically closed the border and have said that new refugee arrivals will be confined to camps. On August 9, Human Rights Watch visited five of the 17 schools where refugees are being held temporarily, and found that they were being guarded by the police and military and that the refugees were not allowed to leave. As of August 27, over 4,250 refugees were confined to schools and a camp in al-Qaim. An official from the Ministry of Displacement and Migration told Human Rights Watch that dozens of families have been allowed to cross the border since it was closed after their cases were assessed individually.

In Lebanon, the High Relief Council and UNHCR have registered or are in the process of registering and assisting about 51,000 refugees from Syria. However, registration does not grant Syrians legal status, only a right to receive assistance. People who enter at an official border crossing are entitled to a 6-month entry visa that is renewable twice. Those who enter other ways risk imprisonment, fines, and deportation as illegal immigrants. Large numbers of Syrians have entered Lebanon illegally because they feared arrest at Syrian border checkpoints and therefore are at risk of detention and possibly deportation. Lebanon deported 14 Syrians in August, four of whom said they feared persecution upon return.

“Refugee camps are an expedient that can provide shelter and save lives in an emergency, but closed camps, particularly over time, can erode refugee rights and cause anger and frustration,” Frelick said. “After proper security screening, host governments should provide refugees legal status and free movement to enable them to be self-sufficient and to contribute to their host country’s economies rather than to be a drain on them.”

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