World's response to Syria refugee crisis is 'pitiful': Amnesty

World's response to Syria refugee crisis is 'pitiful': Amnesty
Rights group says the international community - and in particular Gulf countries - has contributed to catastrophe by failing to offer protection and resettlement to Syria’s most vulnerable refugees.
5 min read
05 December, 2014
At least ten percent of refugees must be settled within two years, says Amnesty [Amnesty]

The failure of world leaders to offer protection to Syria's most vulnerable refugees has led to a catastrophe, Amnesty International has said in a report released days before a UN donors' conference.

Left Out in the Cold, published on Friday, highlights what the London-based rights group described as the "pitiful" numbers of resettlements offered by foreign governments.

Fewer than two percent of the 3.8 million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt have been offered resettlement during more than three years of war.

     The Gulf states seem to be very generous in sending weapons but not so willing to take in people fleeing the violence.
- Bissan Fakih, Syria Campaign

Rich countries 'shocking' failure

Amnesty's report criticised Gulf Arab states for not offering to take a single refugee. It also noted Russia and China had also failed to offer any assistance.

Germany and Sweden had processed 96,500 Syrian asylum applications in the past three years. But the rest of the EU had pledged to resettle only 0.17 per cent of the total number of refugees.

"Nearly 380,000 people have been identified as in need of resettlement by the UN refugee agency. Just a tiny fraction of these people have been offered sanctuary abroad," said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, the group's head of refugee rights.

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The 380,000 identified are those who are recognised as being the most vulnerable - survivors of torture, unassisted children, the disabled and families supported by a woman alone. 

Some observers say the involvement of countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UK or the US in the Syrian conflict places an extra responsibility on them to resettle refugees displaced by the protracted and brutal civil war.

"The Gulf states seem to be very generous in sending weapons but not so willing to take in people fleeing the violence," said Bissan Fakih, campaigner for the Syria Campaign advocacy group.

"And if the US and its allies are going to talk about challenging IS then they need to also be serious about helping the human beings whose lives are most affected by the group and the bombing campaign against them."

Amnesty's Elsayed-Ali also highlighted the lack of action from the Gulf states.

"The complete absence of resettlement pledges from the Gulf is particularly shameful. Linguistic and religious ties should place the Gulf states at the forefront of those offering safe shelter to refugees fleeing persecution and war crimes in Syria."

Neighbouring countries overwhelmed

The lack of international support has had disastrous consequences with the five main host countries, said Amnesty. Lebanon's population has soared by a quarter and number of refugees hosted there is 715 times the total of the number of Syrians who sought asylum in the EU in the past three years, Amnesty says.  

"The burden on the host communities is completely untenable. The refugees simply are not getting the support they need," said Fakih.

The report also notes that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have imposed severe restrictions on the entry of refugees in recent months, leaving many trapped in Syria at serious risk of abuses by government forces or militant groups including the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS).

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"At the beginning it was manageable but longer-term needs are much harder to cater for and the UN humanitarian fund is dwindling," explained Rabi Bana, a Syrian NGO worker supporting civil society groups within Syria and refugees in Lebanon.

More and more refugees are making expensive and often dangerous journeys further afield due to the bleak prospects in Syria's neighbouring countries and increasingly stringent government restrictions.

"People are just so desperate to find a better future for themselves or their children but oftentimes in doing so they have to get themselves into huge debt or make the perilous journey across the sea, and we all know how many of those end," said Bana.   

Turning the tide?

Amnesty said that at least five percent of Syria's refugees must be resettled by the end of 2015 with a further five percent resettled the next year. This would ensure that all those currently identified as in need of resettlement by UNHCR would be given places. Refugees in need of resettlement include survivors of torture, unaccompanied children and people with serious medical conditions. 

The UN is holding a donors' conference in Geneva on 9 December to drum up aid.

     At the beginning it was manageable but... the UN humanitarian fund is dwindling.
- Rabi Bana, Syrian NGO worker

"Next week's pledging conference must be used to turn the tide. It is time for world governments to take the courageous steps needed to share the responsibility for this crisis and help avert further suffering," Elsayed-Ali said. 

"If a tiny country with a weak economy and huge debt like Lebanon can accommodate an increase of a quarter of its population, others can certainly be doing more to help." 

Amnesty acknowledged the "generous" financial contributions to the UN humanitarian response by wealthy countries including the US, the UK and Kuwait, but said that wasn't enough.

"Countries cannot ease their consciences with cash payouts then simply wash their hands of the matter," Elsayed-Ali said.  

Only a fraction of resettlement pledges already made have been fulfilled.

As of August 2014, 7,000 refugees referred by UNHCR for resettlement had left for new homes.

Promises of financial aid are also often left significantly wanting. Figures published this week by UNOCHA shows the European Commission has $92,067646 in aid pledges that it has not yet committed, Kuwait $200,000,000 and Qatar $11,105,269.

The World Food Programme announced this week that it had been forced to suspend food aid to 1.7 million refugees due to a funding crisis.

In much of Europe, the debate around immigration has become particularly divisive - making many politicians reticent to take in refugees.

"In Europe, the whole discussion around immigration and refugees has become so toxic - but these countries have the means to do more, said Fakih of the Syria Campaign. "There needs to be more awareness raising."