Welcoming Syria’s war-weary

By Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty’s International Secretariat in London, England

As the humanitarian and human rights crisis caused by Syria’s internal armed conflict shows no signs of abating, two important announcements made this week help us to take stock of the enormity of the suffering of those fleeing the fighting, and what can be done to help.

In the space of 24 hours, the UN announced that the number of refugees from Syria had officially surpassed 2 million and Sweden’s Migration Board stated it would grant permanent residency status to persons from Syria seeking asylum on Swedish territory.

This is surely a balm for the thousands of Syrians who have fled to Sweden, weary of the war that evolved after the protests of early 2011 and has raged ever since.

Previously the Scandinavian country had granted permanent residency to around half of the asylum-seekers from Syria on its territory. The other half had been granted three-year temporary residence permits.

Already, on 30 January 2012, the Swedish Migration Board officially stopped all deportations to Syria.

Now, as asylum seekers become permanent residents of Sweden, their family members will also be able to apply for family reunification.

While Amnesty International warmly welcomes Sweden’s move to protect Syria’s refugees, other countries in the European Union, and elsewhere, can and should do much more.

The organization has long lobbied EU states to take measures to assist the massive numbers of people who have fled Syria – now overwhelmingly found in Syria’s neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

In contrast, the 27 countries of the European Union, with a combined population of more than 500 million, provided protection status in 2012 to a combined total of 18,700 refugees from Syria. More than 70 per cent of these were recorded in only two countries – Germany and Sweden.

It is essential that the international community act with determination to share responsibility for Syria’s refugees. There must be a significant increase in support to the neighbouring countries which receive the bulk of the refugees, and neighbouring countries must keep their borders open to all those fleeing the conflict.

At the same time, more countries should follow Sweden’s example to ensure that people fleeing Syria are protected and offered paths to begin new lives in safe surroundings.

On the heels of the Swedish announcement, UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated that his country would “lead the world” in the Syria relief effort. Germany has already agreed to take another 5,000 individuals from Syria via a humanitarian admission programme.

These initiatives form a crucial part of what will be needed to stem the tide of suffering for civilians caught up in the Syrian conflict. However, two-and-a-half years after the crisis in Syria began, with almost a third of the country’s population displaced internally or in other countries, such offers of assistance must be followed through promptly and replicated widely.

Amnesty International will continue to urge all states in a position to aid Syrian refugees to do all they can in the face of one of the worst displacement crises in recent history.

Photo: Despite the recent move by Sweden, EU states are sheltering only a tiny percentage of the 2 million refugees from Syria. © Getty Images