Fortress Europe: Syrian refugee shame exposed

A refugee camp located in former military barracks in the town of Harmanli, Bulgaria© NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images

The European Union member states are failing to play their fair part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives. The number of those they’re prepared to resettle is truly shameful



Fortress Europe: Syrian refugee shame exposed

(Brussels, 13 December 2013) European leaders should hang their heads over the shamefully low numbers of refugees from Syria they are prepared to resettle, said Amnesty International.

A briefing published today, An International Failure: the Syrian refugee crisis, details how European Union (EU) member states have only offered to open their doors to around 12,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria: just 0.5 per cent of the 2.3 million people who have fled the war-torn country.

“The European Union member states are failing to play their fair part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives. The number of those they’re prepared to resettle is truly shameful’’, said Nicolas Beger, Director of Amnesty International’s European Union Institutions Office.

Nicosia, the EU’s closest capital, is just 200 miles from Damascus. Yet collectively, EU member states have pledged to resettle a very low number of Syrian refugees from a conflict practically in their own backyard. Amnesty International’s briefing breaks down the figures:

• Only ten EU member states have offered resettlement or humanitarian admission places to refugees from Syria.

• Germany has by far been the most generous, pledging to resettle 10,000 refugees or 80 per cent of the total number of member states’ pledges.

• Excluding Germany, the remaining 27 EU member states have offered to take in a mere mere 2, 340  refugees from Syria.

• France has offered just 500 places to people who have fled Syria. 

• Spain has agreed to take just 30 refugees from Syria.

• Eighteen EU member states – including the United Kingdom and Italy – have offered no places at all.

As winter approaches and the war shows little sign of ending, conditions for Syrians on the ground and the 2.3 million Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries are deteriorating rapidly. With only 12,000 places offered by EU member states for resettlement or humanitarian admission, tens of thousands are attempting to reach safety and protection in Europe under their own steam, risking life and limb on boats or across land.

Amnesty International’s research has revealed that first they have to break through the barricades of Fortress Europe. Many are faced with violent push-backs by police and coast guards, or detained for weeks in deplorable conditions in member states, with insufficient food, water, or medical care. Some do not even make it to the EU’s shores, being picked up at sea and detained in countries where member states have outsourced their migration control to. These countries, such as Egypt, often have very low human rights standards. And as we have seen too many times, many never make it at all, losing their lives at sea.

Ahead of the European Summit, Amnesty International is calling for EU member states to:

• Provide safe routes and sanctuary through legal safe passage for Syrian asylum seekers wishing to travel to the EU; significantly increasing the number of resettlement and humanitarian admission places for refugees from Syria; and end unlawful push-backs.

• Strengthen search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to identify boats in distress and assist those on board; and ensure that those rescued are treated with dignity and have access to asylum procedures.

• Put an end to outsourcing its migration control to third countries with low human rights standards.

“The platitudes of Europe’s leaders regarding solidarity and sanctuary are ringing hollow against the evidence,” said Beger. “The EU must do more than throw money at this refugee crisis, and urgently open its borders, provide safe passage, and halt these deplorable human rights violations at its borders and its own detention centres.”

Background information and testimonies

The bulk of the 2.3 million refugees – 97 per cent – have fled to five neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The arrival of refugees from Syria to Lebanon has increased the population by nearly 20 per cent.

Just 55,000 Syrian refugees (2.4 per cent of the total number of people who have fled Syria)  have managed to get through and claim asylum in EU member states. Many head for Sweden or Germany, which have offered the most help to asylum seekers. In the two years prior to the end of October 2013, Sweden has received 20,490 new Syrian asylum applications and Germany 16,100 such applications. Less than 1,000 people have claimed asylum in Greece, Spain, Italy and Cyprus.

Since July 2013, Amnesty International has conducted field research missions looking at the situations of refugees in, among others, Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Turkey. Below are just some accounts of the journey to Europe and the situation faced by refugees in just some of the transit countries and countries of arrival in the EU. More details can be found in Amnesty International’s briefing An International Failure: the Syrian refugee crisis.

The journey to Italy by sea

Hundreds of people die attempting to cross the Mediterranean every year. In October as many as 650 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died when three boats sank attempting to reach Europe from North Africa. More than 10,000 Syrian refugees are reported to have arrived along Italy’s coast in the first 10 months of this year. Amnesty International’s briefing gives first-hand accounts of those who have attempted to reach Europe by sea.

Awad, a 17 year-old boy from Damascus, described how he managed to escape through a window of a sinking boat and swim to the surface. There were reportedly 400 people on board. He saw people clinging to dead bodies and boat wreckage to stay afloat, while others fought over life jackets. Awad lost his mother as well as other family members.

“I have no idea where my family are {…] I used to have ambition but now I have lost my mother, I don't want anything, I just want stability, everything else is second to that.“

Another boy from Syria lost both his father and nine year old brother in the accident.

My experience didn’t just destroy my dreams; it destroyed my families’ dreams. I am destroyed completely”

Fortress Europe

In the two of the main gateways to the EU, Bulgaria and Greece, refugees from Syria are met with deplorable treatment, including life threatening ‘push-back’ operations along the Greek coast, and detention for weeks in poor conditions in Bulgaria.

Greece: pushed back into the sea

Refugees have told Amnesty International how Greek police or Coast guard, wielding guns and wearing full face hoods, ill-treated them, stripped them of their belongings, and eventually pushed them back to Turkey.

A 32 year-old man from Syria describes how he and his mother were confronted by the Greek coast guard near the island of Samos in October. They were part of a group of 35 people including women and young children pushed back to Turkey.

“They put all the men lying on the boat; they stepped on us and hit us with their weapons for three hours. Then at around 10 in the morning, after removing the motor, they put us back to our plastic boat and drove us back to the Turkish waters and left us in the middle of the sea.’’

The number of unlawful push-backs operations from Greece is not known; however Amnesty International believes hundreds have been affected.

In the last two years the European Commission has provided €228 million to bolster border controls. In comparison, for the same time period, €12 million was allocated under the European Refugee Fund, which supports efforts in receiving refugees.

Bulgaria: detained and contained

In Bulgaria, an estimated 5,000 Syrian refugees arrived between January and November 2013. The majority are housed in emergency centres, the largest of which is in the town of Harmanli. It is effectively a closed detention centre.

Amnesty International found refugees living in squalid conditions in containers, a dilapidated building and in tents. There was a lack of adequate sanitary facilities, and limited access to food, bedding or medicine.

A large number of people were in need of medical care, including some injured in conflict, individuals suffering chronic diseases, and those with mental health problems.

Some of the refugees in Harmanli that Amnesty International spoke to had been detained for over a month. 

For more information, please contact

Maeve Patterson
Media & Communications Officer
European Institutions Office
Amnesty International
Tel: +32 (0) 2 548 2773
[email protected]
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