As Neighbors Strain, Other States Grant Syria’s Refugees Cold Reception

CREDIT: New York Times/Lynsey Addario

Refugees in Iraq wait for humanitarian aid

The ongoing conflict in Syria has forced more than two million people to flee their homes to escape the violence. As neighboring countries strain to hold them, the reception that these refugees receive when they move past their immediate backyard has been mixed at best, or deadly at worst.

Since the crisis began in 2011, the number of those trying to escape the war has grown at an alarming rate. As a New York Times interactive illustrates, the swelling numbers of those who have sought asylum in neighboring countries is reaching a dangerous level for those who have taken them in. Lebanon’s population has grown almost 20 percent through taking in 790,000 refugees; and the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan has become the fourth-largest city in the country.

But countries immediately bordering Syria are not the only ones dealing with the situation. Just to the north, the influx of immigrants also has Bulgaria on edge. To stop the flow of refugees illegally crossing the border into the country, the Bulgarian government is considering building a 19-mile long fence along its border with Turkey. “Nearly 85 percent of the illegal border trespassers from Turkey pass through [the mountainous Elhovo region],” Deputy Interior Minister Vasil Marinov told journalists, noting the difficulties both sides have in policing this area. According to Bulgarian police data, 6,800 foreigners — 70 percent of whom were Syrian — have crossed into the country illegally since the beginning of the year. A long immigration process has kept those that came to Bulgaria legally crammed into reception centers.

Italy has proved another popular destination for refugees fleeing Syria. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has reported that more than 21,000 refugees and other migrants have arrived on Italy’s southern shores since the year began, at least 4,600 of whom have been escaping Syria. The voyage to reach Lampedusa, the southernmost Italian island, is proving to be extremely perilous as of late, with a number of high-profile sinkings in recent weeks leaving hundreds dead. Most recently, 400 people were aboard a ship that sank on Friday, most of whom were from Syria, after the vessel was shot at as it left Libya.

Being rescued from a possibly watery grave doesn’t end the plight of refugees whose ships have sunk. More than 100 refugees from Syria attempted to set sail for Italy from Alexandria, Egypt, last Thursday only to have their boat sink minutes into the voyage. Once back ashore in Egypt, according to the Globe and Mail, the Syrians — including children — have found themselves in fetid prison conditions. Though they have committed no crime, having entered Egypt legally and themselves the victims of being scammed out of $3,000 each, they are being threatened with deportation. The Economist reports that since August, Egyptian police have caught more than 800 Syrians trying to escape Egyptian waters. Around 600 of them have volunteered to go to Turkey or return to Syria rather than remain in Egyptian jail cells.

The United Nations sees the crisis getting worse — far worse — before it gets better. In planning for next year’s funding requests, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that another 2 million Syrians will become refugees in 2014 and 2 million on top of that being internally displaced. All told, the U.N. sees more than a third of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million requiring some form of humanitarian aid next year.

In response, the U.N. has requested that other countries take in at least 10,000 refugees by the end of 2013. The response has been mostly tepid. France on Wednesday agreed to accept 500 refugees, despite a growing wave of anti-immigrant feelings and popularity towards far-right parties. Scandinavia has been more welcoming towards the refugee population: Norway has agreed to take in 1,000, while Sweden has offered asylum to all Syrians currently within the country.

The United States, on the other hand, has not been nearly as embracing of Syrian refugees. Despite being the top humanitarian aid donor, the U.S. is currently sitting on the applications of 6,000 Syrians trying to reunite with American family members. In August, the Obama administration did agree to begin the process to allow in another 2,000 Syrian refugees. At the time, however, since the crisis first began the U.S. had only taken in a grand total of 90 Syrians.