Egypt, Jordan, Iraq seek to stem Syrian refugee flood

Syria's raging civil war has seen neighbors flooded with refugees. Egypt has become the latest regional country to take steps to limit refugee access.

Michael Maure/French Army
The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan this April. Syria's refugee crisis has grown substantially since.

Nearly a third of Syria's 21 million people are now a refugee or displaced within their own country. That staggering number has begun to overwhelm neighboring countries and international organizations say some states are beginning to severely restrict the inflow of Syrians fleeing the conflict.

Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that Syrians flying into Egypt are now being turned away. Prior to President Mohamed Morsi being deposed Egypt was allowing visa-free arrival for Syrians fleeing the conflict, and aid workers in Cairo estimate there are about 300,000 Syrians in the country now. Egypt's current military rulers began requiring visas for Syrian nationals shortly after removing Morsi from power on July 3, even though the Egyptian embassy in Syria reportedly lacks the capacity to issue them at the present time.

Egypt's policy shift follows Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan who have all sought to limit the refugee inflow. The changes have resulted in thousands of Syrian refugees stuck in border regions where they remain unsafe and sometimes beyond the reach of adequate humanitarian assistance. That has left many international organizations in a difficult position: They acknowledge the strain the refugee population has put on host countries but still want Jordan and other nations to keep their borders open.

“We are absolutely commending these governments for having been so generous. We do understand that they’re worried about having so many Syrians on their soil, but if people are on the other side of the border unable to escape... the most humane thing a country can do when people are fleeing for their lives is to keep the borders open," says Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for UNHCR.

There are more than 1.75 million Syrian refugees who have registered or are awaiting registration with the UN – more than 20 times the number of refugees from the same time last year. Another 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria and there are 6.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.

In Lebanon, which maintains one of the most open borders with Syria, the government estimates that the number Syrian refugees it hosts is equivalent to a quarter of its entire population.

Aside from straining resources, there are also concerns that Syrian refugees will bring political problems.

Iraq’s most recent war has ended, but sectarian tensions remain and a number of Iraqi Sunnis hope the Syrian uprising will cross the border and help them overthrow their Shiite-dominated government. In Jordan, more than half of the country is of Palestinian origin and the government is not eager to absorb Syria’s Palestinian population.

In Jordan, the number of refugees crossing the border has fallen from 2,000-3,000 per day to 600-700 per day and Iraq has closed its borders to incoming refugees, except for special cases. “Basically the government is citing security concerns and fear of spill over of the Syrian conflict into Iraq as the main reason,” says Natalia Prokopchuk, a reporting officer for the UNHCR in Baghdad.

The increased difficulty faced by many fleeing refugees has caused the number of displaced people living in camps along the border inside Syria to swell. While safer than many parts of Syria, border areas do not offer complete security and the humanitarian situation there is often dire.

“These areas are subject to aerial attacks by the Syrian government and refugees are not secure from fighting,” says Lama Fakih, a Syria and Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch.

In just two years, the war inside Syria has claimed more than 93,000 lives and attempts to end the war through diplomacy have failed. International organizations say that humanitarian need inside Syria surpasses the aid available.

"While the [International Rescue Committee] commends Syria’s neighbors for maintaining an open borders policy, we are increasingly concerned about reports of Syrians having difficulty entering Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. The international community should strongly encourage hosting governments and the Syrian regime to respect the right of all refugees fleeing Syria to ‘seek and enjoy asylum’ and discourage policies – including the closure of borders – that prevent civilians from leaving Syria,” says Ned Colt, regional communications manager for the International Rescue Committee.

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