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Recent Tragedy Highlights Plight of Syrian Refugees

The Italian Coast Guard rescuing migrants who survived a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013 | Photo Credit: Guardia Costiera

In mid-April, over 900 migrants, many of whom were Syrians, drowned at sea while making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe in an event that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, lamented as a  “a tragedy within a tragedy.” The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) is troubled that hundreds of  refugees who had risked everything for the opportunity of a better life were tragically lost at sea due to the conflicts and deprivation they faced in their home countries, the negligence of European officials, and the greed of human smugglers who took advantage of their desperation. For SJAC, the recent tragedy sheds light on the plight of Syria’s refugees, a community that grows larger each day.

By all accounts, Syrians are well-aware of the risks they face when they pay smugglers high fees, entrusting strangers to deliver them safely to Europe. Nonetheless, thousands of Syrians continue to make the journey each month, demonstrating the hopelessness of their situations in Syria and neighboring countries. Even for those who live in areas of Syria that are relatively safe, the lack of opportunities and worsening economic situation fuels yearning for a better life abroad.

As neighboring countries have curtailed the ability of Syrians to enter their borders and work once they have arrived, crossing by sea into Europe might seem like the only good option. But even for those who survive the journey, their new lives are fraught with difficulties. To date, European countries have created few legal pathways for Syrians to resettle within their borders. Many Syrians do not speak English, let alone the local language, and their undocumented statuses leave them in a state of legal limbo. Unless Europe develops a more comprehensive plan to protect migrants en route to Europe and resettle them once they arrive, the tragedy of April 18 will inevitably be repeated. So far, however, there has been resistance: in an attempt to dissuade migrants from making the journey in the first place, Italy eliminated regular search and rescue patrols in the Mediterranean last year. This policy has failed, and UNHCR estimates that the number of migrants traveling by sea to Europe could number over 500,000 in 2015.

Europe’s current strategy underestimates the length to which people will go to escape the harsh realities in which they live. Without a comprehensive plan, those who make it to Europe will be unable to resettle through legal means, and undocumented Syrians living in Europe will have limited ability to contribute to Syria’s future once the conflict ends. Effective transitional justice processes will require participation by Syria’s large displaced population, but justice mechanisms will find it difficult to conduct outreach and seek the contribution of undocumented immigrants in Europe. Moreover, European prosecutors investigating war crimes and terrorism cases may be losing access to witnesses and evidence from those who are uneasy about coming forward.

As Europe discusses how to better address their immigration challenges, some of the reforms that can be considered include increasing the number of refugees admitted to Europe for resettlement; expanding options for legal methods of migration; and expanding support and resettlement services to those already in-country. Furthermore, it must be recognized that the flow of migrants to Europe and elsewhere will not ebb unless the root cause — the ongoing violence in Syria — is addressed. With an estimated 4 million Syrians externally displaced, turning a blind eye on the refugee crisis is no longer an option.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].