Refugees in Europe: An Opportunity for Justice

Syrian_refugees_strike_at_the_platform_of_Budapest_Keleti_railway_station._Refugee_crisis._Budapest,_Hungary,_Central_Europe,_4_September_2015._(3)
Syrian refugees at a Budapest railway station | Credit: Mstyslav Chernov

Over the past month, news on Syria has been dominated by the growing refugee crisis. An estimated 3,000 migrants, many of whom are Syrian, are arriving by boat and land to Europe each day. Over 4 million Syrians are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many more are unregistered or have recently decided to flee the civil war due to the growing, unabating violence and sheer frustration at the loss of opportunity that has resulted from over four years of economic devastation. As the refugee crisis spills over to Europe’s borders, an opportunity has emerged for Europe to make meaningful contributions to bringing about justice and reconciliation for Syria, but concerted action needs to be taken, a difficult task in the face of the large anti-migrant sentiment sweeping the continent.

International law prohibits rendering refugees back to the areas from which they fled, a principle called non-refoulement. Anti-migration leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban claim that walls and other similar measures do not violate the principle because they are not aimed at sending Syrians back to a war zone, but prevent them from entering from countries that are at peace. These leaders instead call on Turkey, the primary recipient of refugees from Syria to do more to prevent unauthorized departures from its soil. Some have even offered to pay Turkey to halt refugees at its borders, while others have offered a more sensible approach: creating refugee intake centers that could help track Syrians and place them in specific European countries based on a pre-established quota. To date, however, the Europe Union has failed to implement a unified strategy, drawing criticism from conservatives and liberals alike.

Politicians are not the only ones torn on what the current crisis means for Europe. Western news outlets either decry the influx as a threat to the stability and cultural integrity of the European Union or call for European countries to do their part, referencing both a moral duty to do so and the economic justification that stems from the current demographic imbalances of much of Western Europe. Despite the day-to-day polemics surrounding  the threat of Syrian refugees, however, none have commented on the opportunity this issue presents to champion justice against those responsible for atrocities committed in Syria.

A Step towards Justice, a report which the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) published in partnership with Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, elaborates on several accountability options that the international community can pursue now, prior to the end of the conflict. According to the report, the most feasible pathway is prosecutions in European and North American courts under principles of active or passive nationality and universal jurisdiction. Among the refugees entering Europe are victims and witnesses to atrocities as well as former Syrian human rights defenders and documenters.

Former fighters from across the spectrum — Syrian government militias to extremist rebels — are also among those seeking safe-haven in Europe. Many use fake names and fake identification papers, an easy task as a Dutch journalist demonstrated recently. But the vast majority of Syrians offer Europe a trove of information and can help identify perpetrators by face even when their names and identities have been changed. Documentation groups, like SJAC, can also assist with this endeavor by connecting witnesses to prosecutors’ offices and sharing data on individuals involved in the conflict. Already, SJAC has worked to collect photos of alleged perpetrators who have sought refuge in Europe and is sharing the information with prosecutors’ offices.

But European governments will need to proceed with caution and work closely with refugee communities to ensure that innocent people are not convicted due to revenge-seekers’ insincere finger-pointing. And for prosecutions to meaningfully contribute to the long-term goal of justice and accountability, prosecutors will need to communicate their decision-making process clearly to Syrians. Otherwise, investigations and trials will be disconnected from the reality of the Syrian context and hold little meaning for those they are meant to benefit. If done with careful consideration, however, Europe could begin to lay the foundations for justice, truth-telling, and ultimate reconciliation, helping to preserve evidence, lead by example, and provide Syrians with the impetus to prioritize justice during peace negotiations. Such a contribution would go above and beyond simply providing for the basic needs of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

For more information and to provide feedback, please email SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org.

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