The idea of resettling Syrian refugees came to the fore during mid to late 2012, a year and a half after the Syrian uprisings began.
The first type of resettlement for refugees came about through limited initiatives by some Western countries that worked with the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) on unique cases which were classified as “high risk”.
For example, on 14/9/2012, the Australian government announced that it will resettle approximately 1000 Syrian refugees, and on 19/9/2012, Switzerland welcomed 36 refugees in order to resettle them.
However, these measurements taken by some western countries are not at the political and international level. In fact, they were small and limited policies that dealt with minorities and lone limited cases.
The Bureau of population, refugees and migration at the U.S State Department had announced on 18/6/2012, that “most Syrians that have found shelter in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq, do not want anything except to return to their homes. And we hope that the circumstances will allow them to return to their homes in the near future”, making resettlement an unlikely solution in dealing with the Syrian refugee issue.
Even by mid 2013, the idea of resettlement had not been discussed properly. This was clear in the speech of the representative of the High Commissioner of the United Nations commission for refugees in Jordan, Andrew Harbour, who said on 29/5/2013, that “there is no-one that wishes that the situation in Syria deteriorates to the extent that Syrian refugees have to be resettled in countries far away”. He also added that the “Syrian refugees do not necessarily want to take advantage of resettlement procedures. They prefer to return to their homes. None of the Syrians wants to live in a refugee camp, and none want to remain a refugee any longer than necessary”.
It was only after mid-2013 that the idea began to successively appear, with the Los Angeles Times publishing a report on 9/6/2013 in which it mentioned that Obama’s administration was considering the resettlement of thousands of Syrian refugees in the United States. The report also mentioned that the U.S. Foreign office was prepared to adopt the idea if it received an application from the UNHCR.
By the end of July 2013, the idea of resettlement of refugees was being suggested officially as an option in dealing with the issue of Syrian refugees, as the High Commissioner for refugees in the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, said in a statement to the British Guardian Newspaper that the UN was looking at resettling tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the countries which had most capacity to look after them, in the case that the situation in Syria becomes worse. The aim of this, he clarified, was to help ease the pressure on the neighbouring countries, especially as- between them- they were hosting 1.8 million refugees.
He also said that the UN was going to work on a massive programme when the time was right, to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the countries which are capable to hosting them, in the case that the Syrian issue is not solved within months.
By the end of August, Andrew Harbour stated that the number of countries- including the U.S- had expressed its interest in welcoming Syrian refugees and resettling them. He also pointed to the fact that Germany was the first European country to host 5,000 Syrian refugees and resettle them until the end of the crisis in their country, and not in a permanent manner as would be the case if the U.S. resettled refugees. He also urged that a political solution was required in order to help people return to their country, considering that refugees and resettling are not solutions to this crisis.
However, the calls for resettlement of refugees from the High Commissioner did not receive a large response from the countries of the EU, which do not generally show much enthusiasm to such calls.
And in Amnesty International’s report, “An International Failure: The Syrian Refugee Crisis”, (published 13/12/2013), Amnesty claimed that the leaders of Europe should bow their heads in shame at the very small number of displaced peoples that they are resettling. The report also added that the member countries of the European Union did not open their doors except for the small number of approximately 12,000 refugees from Syrian. This number does not represent except 0.5% of those who have fled Syria, and whose numbers have reached roughly 2.3 million people.
According to the report, only 10 countries of the EU offered spaces in which they could resettle Syrian refugees, Germany being the most generous and promising to resettle 10,000 refugees- which is 80% of the total of what the EU countries offered altogether. The rest of the countries, of whom there are 27, offered to resettle no more than 2340 refugees, with France offering to resettle 500 refugees (0.02% of the total refugee population) and Spain offering to resettle only 30 refugees (0.001%).
On 29/1/2014, the British Home Office announced that the government had put forward steps to host a group of refugees, – among the most weak and vulnerable- saying that children, women, the disabled and victims of rape would have priority among the refugees to be resettled in Britain. The British government also clarified on another occasion that the program for resettling Syrian refugees was separate to that of the UNHCR, although it would work in parallel to it.
Later, on 21/2/2014, the UNHCR launched an invitation to member countries of the UN to prepare to resettle roughly 100,000 Syrian refugees during 2015 and 2016. The spokesperson of the UNHCR, Dan Mark Norton said in a press conference that the UNHCR expects that the number of Syrian refugees requiring resettlement will increase in the coming years. He urged the member countries to look into solutions, one of which was to provide urgent and safe protection for the refugees. He also hinted that this could encompass resettlement, humanitarian acceptance or individual care.
Resettlement: A Partial Solution to a Larger Issue
Without doubt, the majority of refugees who are living in refugee camps, the desert or in arid mountains, with no basic amenities, will choose resettlement as an option, especially if in a western country to which many inhabitants of the third world strive to go to live in.
However, resettlement – even in the eyes of the UNHCR – does not provide a natural solution to the crisis. Rather, it provides a partial and limited solution to a negative consequence of the crisis; a consequence which the international community has assisted in growing.
The current proposal for resettlement will help in solving no more than 1-2% of the solution in the best cases, according to the estimations of the new report of the UNHCR published on 21/2/2014. Note however that these numbers are the official registered number of refugees- around 2466011 refugees (from 26/2/2014) – whilst it is estimated that the total number of refugees outside Syria are around 4 million people. This is whilst the number of displaced people inside Syria are estimated to be around 6.5 million people, according to the UN report which was submitted to the security council on the 27/1/2014.
It is therefore clear that such partial solutions cannot relieve the pressure on neighbouring countries as the UNHCR wished to do. In fact, the number of refugees who have been registered in the past month, exceeds the number that the UN wish to resettle!
The decision of the international community to resettle refugees is an acknowledgment that they have been unable to solve the Syrian crisis, as well as a message to Syrian refugees to cancel the option of returning to Syria as a realistic option for the foreseeable future. It is also an escape from the real obligations of the international community towards the Syrians.
The Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) views the increasing suggestions on the issue of resettlement of refugees with alarm, and calls for the following:
– The need for redoubling the efforts of countries and organisations in order to stop the violations of human rights which have been taking place in Syria for three years, and which is the primary reason for the influx of millions of refugees and continues to be till today. If these violations are not put to an end, the crisis will continue to grow, and the international community will not be able to solve the issue through further calls for resettlement!
– The international community should ensure the protection of civilians in Syria through the provision of no-fly zones which will protect from the rocket attacks and air raids of the Syrian regime, and in turn, will provide safe places for Syrian civilians within their country instead of having to be resettled elsewhere.
– SHRC, whilst recognising the need for refugees to be resettled to safer places, emphasises that most of the millions of refugees will not leave their homes. It is therefore incumbent that organisations and countries focus on solutions that deal with the refugee issue in an integrated manner, and not those that solve the problems of thousands of them and ignore millions.
– The need to intensify the volume of contributions from donors to provide the necessary requirements of life both inside and outside of Syria, in order to alleviate the violations of social, economical and cultural violations suffered by the refugees in the camps and in the besieged areas, and to stop them from seeking refuge elsewhere.