UN agency urges countries to ensure safe passage for Syrians fleeing conflict

Young Omar and his parents, who fled Syria and crossed into Turkey, have been accepted for resettlement in France. Photo: UNHCR/J.Tanner

18 October 2013 – With the numbers of Syrians seeking safety in Europe on the rise, the United Nations refugee agency said today it is concerned about difficulties displaced people face during their passage and at borders, including the risk of drowning at sea.

Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), cited the case of a boat carrying between 400 and 500 Syrians and Palestinians that sank in the Mediterranean last Friday. Only 200 people have been rescued.

“We are disturbed that the cause of the tragedy could well be attributed to shots that were fired after the boat left Libya, injuring four passengers and damaging the hull,” Ms. Fleming told a news conference in Geneva.

The same day, she noted, a boat sank just off Alexandria in Egypt with an estimated 112 passengers on board, 40 of whom were Syrian. Twelve bodies were recovered, including five children. The survivors are being held in detention facilities in two police stations.

They were among a growing number of Syrians trying to cross the Mediterranean from Egypt to Italy because of anxiety about their security, according to UNHCR. Many mention physical assaults, verbal threats, detention and deportation.

The Egyptian Government estimates that some 250,000 to 300,000 Syrians currently reside in Egypt, of whom more than 122,000 are registered with UNHCR.

Between January and the end of September, at least 7,557 Syrians and Palestinians arrived on the coast of Italy, including 6,233 since August in 63 boats. This compares to about 350 Syrians in 2012. Most of the Syrian refugees that reach Italy continue on to other countries in Europe in search of asylum.

UNHCR was particularly concerned about the increasing number of unaccompanied children making the voyage. As the cost of travel can range from $2,000-$5,000 per person, some families opt to send their children alone or with relatives or friends.

“UNHCR notes with concern that over 800 Syrians have been arrested in Egypt since August for attempting to illegally depart and 144, including 44 children, have been deported to third countries,” said Ms. Fleming.

“Although charges have not been laid, approximately 589 Syrians remain in administrative detention, including women and 84 children. UNHCR is seeking access to the detained in order to properly verify numbers, conditions, and needs, or provide legal assistance,” she added.

UNHCR recognizes that a number of countries in North Africa are increasingly affected by the displacement caused by the Syria crisis, placing additional demands on their infrastructure and resources. Given the dramatic needs of Syrian refugees, which are likely to continue and grow in the immediate future, reinforcement of capacity to receive them in North African countries is increasingly urgent, the agency stressed.

UNHCR is working with Governments, the European Union and other partners to put in place a comprehensive response to saving lives of refugees and migrants at sea. It is calling for a number of measures to prevent further tragedies and increase responsibility sharing.

Generous approaches to protection are needed, Ms. Fleming noted, including non-penalization of those arriving without identity documents, offering flexibility in the application of family reunification criteria and procedures, dispensing with certain visa requirements, and facilitation of the entry of Syrians for work, study, family or humanitarian purposes under national programmes.

More than 100,000 people have been killed since opposition groups first sought the ouster of President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. The conflict has also sent 2 million people fleeing for safety to neighbouring countries and displaced some 4.5 million people internally.


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