LONDON (AlertNet) – Middle Eastern countries should not close their borders to the rising number of refugees fleeing conflict-wracked Syria, and donors must help them cope with the influx, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
The New York-based group said refugees from Syria should be allowed to cross into neighbouring states and stay there legally without fear of detention, confinement in camps or deportation.
“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,” Bill Frelick, HRW’s refugee programme director, said in a statement.
In the past, Syria kept its borders open to Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis fleeing conflict at home and allowed them free movement, and Syrians should now be extended the same hospitality, he added.
More than 200,000 Syrians have entered Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon since the conflict began 17 months ago. But in recent days some officials in these countries have said they are reaching their limit and may soon close their borders, HRW noted.
Turkey is sheltering more than 80,000 refugees, Jordan 61,000, Lebanon 51,000 and Iraq 16,000.
The United Nations said on Aug. 28 that up to 200,000 Syrians could flee to Turkey alone if the conflict worsens.
"An increase in international support is vital to back Turkey's efforts to keep pace with the large numbers of Syrian refugees seeking refuge there," U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming said.
Turkey has floated the idea of a "safe zone" to be set up giving civilians U.N. protection inside Syria, as violence between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters intensifies – a proposal supported by France. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has dismissed talk of a buffer zone as impractical.
As of mid-August, donors had given $64 million, or around a third of the $193 million requested under a regional response plan for Syrian refugees, led by UNHCR.
HRW said the Arab League and the United States have each pledged an additional $100 million in assistance to host countries, and Saudi Arabia has raised at least $72.5 million.
FRUSTRATION IN CLOSED CAMPS
The rights group said host governments have come under pressure to block refugees and constrain their presence by keeping them in closed camps or not giving them secure legal status.
It noted that around 9,000 Syrians are massed on the Syrian side of the Turkish border because screening procedures at two border crossings have virtually ground to a halt.
And hundreds more are stranded on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border, at risk of air and artillery attacks, since the Iraqi government closed the al-Qaim crossing point temporarily, HRW said.
None of Syria’s neighbours have formally recognised Syrians inside their borders as refugees, which would confer specific rights on them, referring to them instead as “guests” or “brothers”, it added.
Some have restricted them to refugee camps from the start, or have recently begun to do so, HRW said.
For example, on a visit to Jordan’s northern al-Za’atri camp on Aug. 8, HRW was told by Syrian refugees they were not allowed to leave. Agence France Presse reported on Aug. 28 that Jordanian officials said Syrian refugees had wounded more than 20 police in a protest over living conditions at the camp which has seen a big influx in recent days.
And when HRW visited five of 17 schools where refugees are being held temporarily in Iraq’s Anbar governorate, it found they were being guarded by police and military and not permitted to leave. As of Aug. 27, more than 4,250 refugees were confined to schools and a camp in al-Qaim in Anbar governorate, it said.
But in Turkey, where the authorities have opened nine camps near the border and are building several more, refugees have been able to come and go for short periods of time, and others who don’t want humanitarian aid have been allowed to live outside, according to HRW.
“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.”