Battle At The Borders: Why More Responsibility Needs To Be Taken For Syrian Refugees

This week news about two different borders caught my attention; one about the Syrian border with Lebanon and the other with Turkey. Individually they alarmed me, but together they significantly call for a change in how the UN, governments and NGOs manage the Syrian conflict. The conflict which began in 2011 when a popular uprising called for freedom and a democratic government by overthrowing the oppressive Assad regime has not result in peace. Instead, half the country’s population of 22 million people have been displaced and 5.4 million people have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries, according to UNHCR. Additionally, The Syrian Centre for Policy Research noted 470,000 deaths in the seven year conflict.

The first event that alarmed me was the discovery of 13 dead Syrian refugees in the mountainous border of Masnaa between Syria and Lebanon on Friday, January 19. Two dead bodies were later discovered the following day, according to the BBC. The death of 15 new Syrians contributes to the ever growing death toll of civilians caught in this violent conflict, which the Syrian Network of Human Rights calculated at 207,000 when they released their report entitled “The 6th Anniversary of the Breakout of the Popular Uprising towards Freedom, and the Killing of the First Civilians” in March 2017. The event highlights the danger Syrians face when fleeing the conflict and as the UN High Commission on Refugees articulated, it “illustrates the desperation of those trying to reach safety in Lebanon, and reminds us that the situation inside Syria remains very difficult and that people continue to take huge risks to cross to safety.” More importantly, however it should remind the public of how since 2015 the process of seeking asylum in Lebanon has become increasingly difficult. Prompted by the fact one in five people in Lebanon are Syrian refugees, according to Amnesty International, the Lebanese Government implemented a visa system in 2015. Previously refugees could enter and leave largely unrestricted, whilst the present process requires them to provide both a signed pledge not to work and a rental agreement from their landlord. Which according to Reuters is increasingly difficult to attain and not having it can result in imprisonment. Therefore, the individuals that the Lebanese Civil Defence officers rescued and sent to hospital from the mountains last weekend, which according to The Telegraph included a pregnant woman and young boy, may not be able to seek asylum after crossing an “arduous and rugged passage in freezing temperatures” as described by a spokesman for the UN High Commission on Refugees. This makes it apparent that changes are needed in the asylum process.

In continuation, the second story that concerned me involved the border in Northern Syria with Turkey, which is closest to the epicentre of the conflict, Aleppo. Turkey is notable as the country that hosts more refugees than any other, as according to the UNHCR, they host 3.3 million Syrians. Unfortunately, the situation at the Syria-Turkey border is becoming increasingly tenuous and according to the New York Times “many are eager for war” as a direct result of American military policy. Recently, the U.S. made an alliance with the Kurdish forces to fight in Syria, primarily the Northern district of Afrin. Turkey who do not recognize Kurds, a stateless people who live in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, are aiming to dislodge the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, according to The Guardian, by attacking them. Despite the fact that the Turkish military are meant to be fighting on the same side against Assad. Thus, the United States choice to make a military alliance in order to create peace has lead to further conflict in the region, proving that current approaches to peace-keeping and conflict resolution do not work. Knock on effects additionally include the deterioration of Turkey-U.S. relations and anti-refugee ideology rising with more calls for stricter border control. The New York Times quoted a local man Mustafa Ozer praising the attacks on Kurds, stating, “Now the border is much more robust. There is no threat anymore. This was mandatory and this should have been done earlier for the whole border.” Most shocking, however, is the opinion polls quoted in The New York Times where 70% are in favour of a military operation into Syria to clear the area of Kurds and Islamic State, despite the risk to Turkish lives. The latter of which who are responsible for killing dozens in near-daily missile attacks on border towns like Kilis in the last few years.

The aforementioned cases both show that neither conflict nor strict border control has been successful in stopping the conflict, if anything it is exacerbating it. Notwithstanding, it should be noted, according to Amnesty International, 95% of Syrian refugees live in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. These five countries are largely regarded as lower-economic countries, many of whom have only recently resolved their own conflicts. Therefore, their infrastructure to support refugees is limited causing heart-rending facts. For instance, 70% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line, according to UNHCR. Therefore, it is understandable that a country like Lebanon, where the refugee population can reach a quarter of its own, choose to change their immigration legalization as a way to prevent their own internal conflict. However, rather than following that, more developed countries or countries with larger land masses, should accept their responsibility in the conflict in order to spread out any stress refugees may cause. For instance, Human Rights Watch has noted that despite playing a large part in military involvement, Russia’s contribution to Syrian refugees is largely limited. Based off Oxfam’s fair share analysis, Russia should be contributing $717 million to humanitarian funds but they are only contributing 1% of that, making it the lowest of all 32 donor countries surveyed. Whilst according to the World Bank, Russia only accept 2% of asylum cases. Although, Russian officials reject their responsibility for aid and safety claiming they are combating terrorists, it is clear that a shift from military intervention towards harbouring and aiding refugees will ease at least the potential conflict that may happen in the bordering countries.

Concurrently, recognizing individual government’s responsibility should coincide better with NGOs and multinational bodies, such as UNHCR, so that there is less confusion. There is a significant need for transparency to avoid further deterioration in bordering regions, like not understanding the sensitivity of having a Kurdish alliance. Although it may sound naive, communication lines are essential. This can also be said for NGOs who this year failed to coordinate against the freezing conditions in European refugee camps leading to at least three deaths in Bulgaria, according to The Independent. More importantly, however, communication lines and transparency are needed to end the conflict. I propose a vital way of achieving this is to reinstate Russia’s seat on the Human Rights Council. They were removed in October 2016, however, despite calls from human rights and humanitarian relief organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to hold Russia accountable for its involvement in possible war crimes, they have not been reinstated. Therefore, it is prudent to open up transparent communication over the conflict. To discuss both Russia’s aid responsibilities, in addition to the Syrian-Iranian-Russian Alliance which the Syrian Network of Human Rights states is responsible for 94% of the conflict’s death toll.

Charlotte Devenish

History student at the University of Edinburgh, currently on exchange at the University of Auckland.