Syria remains a deadly and hostile country while its civil war is underway. This means civilians continue to require protection and refugees will need assistance in terms of resettlement and safe passage to third countries.
From its pre-conflict population of 20.5 million, 6.15 million people are internally displaced and 13.5 million people need humanitarian assistance.
By the end of October 2017 there were 5.31 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries.
Conditions for refugees remain precarious and there are a number of risks for those who reside in camp settings, including:
Lack of access to psychological support.
Protection concerns for unaccompanied minors.
Sexual and gender-based violence.
Poor health and bad hygiene.
Lack of protection to harsh weather conditions.
Limited financial resources.
While funding from donors to help humanitarian organisations is still vital and allows for much needed protection and assistance mechanisms to be put in place, there can be no alternative to asylum and resettlement to allow refugees to continue their lives and enjoy their full entitlement to rights in as safe an environment as possible.
In 2015, the EU asked 27 countries to take 160,000 refugees but by September 2017 only 29,162 had been taken in. The UK, who was not part of this scheme eventually agreed to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 through its own national Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme (VPRP).
However, many refugees are still making dangerous journeys from their country of origin, which exacerbates their suffering.
That’s why more safe and legal pathways are needed to ensure protection of Syrian refugees.
The UK position
The UK government settled on accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees. There has been opinion that the UK should accept more. The UK government has made clear though that it prefers to provide humanitarian funding to support those within the country believing that offering resettlement would encourage people to make the dangerous journey to the UK.
While aid can help attend to urgent needs there are many hard to reach areas in Syria, including those that are besieged. That means that humanitarian convoys can be denied entry. And so-called safe zones cannot truly protect the civilian population who have suffered disproportionately from the conflict. In addition Syrians are at risk of sexual violence, enforced disappearances and forced conscription as well as the recruitment of child soldiers. Evidence of torture and extra-judicial executions have also been uncovered.
The VPRP gives those under it ‘refugee status’, which affords more benefits to them than the previous prescribed ‘humanitarian protection’ status. This change in status is certainly positive.
Participation in the VPRP by local authorities in the UK is voluntary. In the year ending March 2017, 235 out of 418 local authorities in the UK had accepted refugees under the VPRP. The devolved administrations are coordinating their response separately to England.
Those eligible for the VPRP are identified by UNHCR and those who register with the agency can indicate if they’d be interested in being resettled under the VPRP. Refugees are then prioritised according to vulnerability, and then undergo a two-tier vetting process.
In addition there are two other pathways for Syrians to stay in the UK. One is that it is possible for Syrians to claim asylum upon arrival or after entry to the UK. In the year ending March 2017, 86% of initial asylum decisions in Syrian cases gave permission to remain in the UK – one of the highest rates of recognition. The other is a temporary concession that allows Syrian nationals in the UK to apply for an extension to their existing visa or change the category of their visa.
There are various practical and legal challenges to reaching the UK however. The absence of legal routes exacerbates refugees’ vulnerability and may undermine efforts to stop them making the dangerous journeys often at the hands of people smugglers.
Therefore, the UK and other states should implement measures that would ensure safer and legal pathways to migrate.
This could be done in a number of ways.
Safe and legal pathways
Resettlement/humanitarian admission schemes
The UK is currently operating the VPRP, which offers resettlement to Syrian refugees prioritised according to vulnerability criteria. However, local authorities who operate voluntarily have pledged places in excess of the designated number of 20,000.
The UK should allow all pledges to be fulfilled to minimise irregular migration methods to be used.
Humanitarian visas are visas that enable the holder to travel to claim asylum overseas without having to make dangerous journeys out of their country of origin.
Instead they are applied for at consular posts either within the country of origin or other points on their migratory route. On acceptance they can then take a legal and safe mode of transport to their destination country.
The UK does not offer humanitarian visas and neither does the EU. However, this has been argued to be a major solution to many of the ills related to forced migration particularly in the current context of the European refugee crisis. That includes deaths at sea, people smuggling or overcrowding on the Greek hotspots who are made up in large part by Syrian refugees.
Medical evacuation could allow for refugees with urgent medical needs to be treated in a third country. This would remove the challenges for families who cannot afford medical treatment and sacrifice other essential needs such as food, rent and education.
The UK could admit those with serious medical conditions to help share the burden of responsibility with host countries.
Family reunion is a key protection mechanism which not only reunites divided families but provides a safe and legal route to the UK and away from harm.
Under UK asylum policy, people can apply for family reunification however it is only applicable to a nuclear family definition. For many people the family extends beyond this narrow interpretation and can include other dependent relatives.
The UK could extend this definition and pass the private members bill – Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill 2017-19.
Community based private sponsorship
Community based private sponsorship means that sponsors take responsibility for some of the costs associated with resettling individuals.
In the UK, the Community Sponsorship initiative matches refugees who arrive through the resettlement programme with community sponsors who assist them through settlement and integration.
This can go one step further like in Canada where private groups can identify refugees for resettlement and then seek government approval for their admission. This then happens outside of current resettlement quotas.
In addition, academic scholarships and labour mobility schemes can also facilitate safe and legal pathways for Syrian nationals.
A change in approach
At the moment asylum in the UK can only be applied for on arrival and Ministers have indicated no intention to change the rules.
Visitor visas are also being increasingly rejected and Syrians must have a transiting visa if transiting through the UK to another country.
More work needs to be done at both the UK and EU level to ensure Syrian refugees are protected.
Enhancing safe and legal methods for this is one key way in which this can happen with relatively little derision from the current impact to the UK.