Syrian Refugee Crisis: Situation, Strategy, Partners, and Advocacy

As the conflict in Syria continues to rage unabated, the needs of refugees who have been displaced by the conflict remain acute. Yet despite the internationally-protected human right of these refugees to flee and seek asylum, host countries refuse to recognize them as full members of their societies, and many European nations have adopted closed border policies that intensifies the crisis. The need to respond compassionately to this situation is as urgent as ever.

Thanks to the generosity of so many people, we have so far raised more than $610,000 for the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund. With these resources, UUSC is working with grassroots partners in Jordan, the Balkans and the United States, providing emergency aid, ensuring access to legal help and resettlement support, and advocating for necessary changes in policy and public perception.

The situation

Five years into Syria’s devastating civil war, half the country’s population remains displaced from their homes, with over 4.8 million Syrians forced to seek refuge abroad. While a partial ceasefire was brokered in February between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and some rebel groups, fighting continues among several other major parties to the conflict, including the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As a result, hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire continue to flee atrocities committed by state and non-state actors and the constant threat of violence from extremist groups.

In some respects, the situation for refugees is worse than ever before. Whereas earlier waves of Syrian refugees were generally able to cross the border and seek asylum abroad, newly displaced Syrians are encountering closed borders and tight restrictions on their movement on all sides. While Syria’s closest neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, had maintained a relatively open border in the early years of the conflict, all three have now effectively closed their borders to asylum seekers – due in large part to the failure of wealthier governments to step in to fill the gaps by adequately funding the humanitarian response and expanding their resettlement programs. Turkish border guards in some cases have actually gunned down Syrian asylum seekers who tried to cross the border.[1] The result is that more than 150,000 civilians fleeing ISIS are now trapped in the desert outside the Turkish border,[2] where they face the constant threat of airstrikes or of falling into the hands of armed rebel groups.

With no clear end to the violence in sight, the nearly five million Syrian refugees living abroad have effectively become permanent residents of the societies they inhabit. Host governments in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, however, continue to maintain the pretense that these refugees are merely temporary “guests” who should not be integrated into society or granted the full rights of citizens. Because of this, Syrian refugees are for the most part forced to live in the shadows. Denied formal permission to work and other basic rights, they must subsist on vanishing cash allowances from international organizations or eke out a living in the informal sector. The extreme financial vulnerability of refugee families has led to skyrocketing rates of child labor and other forms of exploitation, as well as to the loss of an entire generation of Syrian children from institutions of formal education.

The shameful conduct of host countries toward refugees, however, is only a foreseeable consequence of the policy choices of wealthier countries. At the start of this year, the European Union made an agreement with Turkey that has exacerbated the crisis. In exchange for returning refugees from Europe to Turkey and the nominal loosening of some of Turkey’s restrictions against refugees, European governments have effectively turned their back on the thousands of refugees trapped at Turkey’s borders or suffering exclusion in Turkish society.

After this bargain went into effect, Europe’s previously open reception centers in Greece and the Balkans were converted into closed detention camps, where refugees are effectively imprisoned while they await possible deportation to Turkey, and where violence against migrants is well-documented.

The United States, meanwhile, has done next to nothing to ameliorate the situation. The U.S. has resettled less than 2,000 Syrian refugees, despite a commitment to resettle 10,000 this fiscal year. What’s more, the U.S. is in the throes of a terrifying anti-immigrant and Islamophobic backlash that jeopardizes the safety of Muslims living in the U.S. and threatens to amend the current refugee program to include overt racial and religious discrimination.

The strategy

UUSC addresses human rights violations against refugees and asylum seekers that are fueled by xenophobic attitudes, short-sighted immigration controls, and nationalistic policies. In whatever context we work, UUSC commits ourselves to the principles that migration is not a crime and seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. UUSC continues to affirm this truth as it pursues a multifaceted strategy in addressing the crisis at home and abroad:

  • Emergency aid and resettlement support in Greece, Croatia, and Serbia: offering medical aid, mental health support, resettlement support, and more aid? to long-term refugees.
  • Legal access in Hungary, Jordan, and the United States: providing legal assistance and awareness training, reunifying family members and assisting refugees in navigating the resettlement processes, including how to challenge discriminatory treatment.
  • Advocacy in Europe and the United States: raising public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues, challenging xenophobic sentiments and legislation, and upholding the inherent dignity of immigrant communities.

The partners

Greece: ensuring decent reception conditions
UUSC has been partnering with the Greek non-governmental organization PRAKSIS to provide immediate transportation assistance and basic needs kits to newly arrived refugees and their children on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Serbia: providing comprehensive mobile assistance along the transit route
The Asylum Protection Center (APC), our partner in Serbia, enlists a team of aid professionals to provide a comprehensive array of services, including legal support, humanitarian aid, psychosocial counseling, and language interpretation, to long-term and transiting refugees.

Croatia: offering support for long-term resettlement
UUSC is partnering with the Center for Peace Studies (CPS), which spearheads the Welcome Initiative, a collaborative effort of 50 organizations to address refugee resettlement, to provide immediate humanitarian support, and to advocate for more welcoming policies at the national and international levels.

Hungary: facilitating family reunification
With our support, our partners at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) are working to provide full financial and legal support for refugee families who have been torn apart by war and are navigating the family reunification process.

Slovenia: providing humanitarian protection at the Croatia-Serbia border

Magna Children at Risk, a UUSC partner, operates medical humanitarian projects — including medical, surgery, psychological, and nutritional programs for children and their families —in two refugee camps at the Croatia-Serbia border.

Jordan: challenging refugee exploitation through legal trainings and assistance
The Arab Renaissance for Democracy (ARDD) — Legal Aid is raising legal awareness and empowerment through trainings and research to help Syrian refugees in Jordan navigate the risks they face due to discrimination, lack of formal recognition, and heightened vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

United States: promoting positive dialogue, refugee integration, and a more welcoming public policy
In Southern California, the Arab American Civic Council is launching, with UUSC support, a “Refugees Welcome” initiative that supports the resettlement and integration of Syrian refugees. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) is working to improve public policy related to refugees in Massachusetts. In Indiana, UUSC is partnering with Refugee Exodus to provide critical care to Syrian refugees while also practically confronting anti-refugee political agendas that caused Refugee Exodus a loss of vital funding. In Toledo, Ohio, UUSC is partnering with US Together to help newly arrived refugee families resettle with dignity in the United States and build their new lives in this country.

The advocacy

Through national policy advocacy, an integrated communications plan, and mobilizing UU congregations and activists, UUSC has been working to increase federal humanitarian assistance for refugees, to increase the U.S. refugee quota, and to forestall any attempt from politicians to introduce religious or ethnic discrimination into the refugee program, and to promote a welcoming environment for all refugees and asylum seekers. 

Key highlights:

  • Releasing “Building Bridges: Refugee Support and Advocacy Toolkit” – a resource for congregations, student groups, and individuals to take action on refugee rights.
  • Launching the Refugee Rapid Response Network to mobilize quickly and effectively around national and state-level legislation on refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • Partnering with members and congregations to organize events such as the Monte Vista UU Congregation’s Refugee Welcoming Lunch, data parties with the Arab American Civic Council to develop a welcome guide for new Americans, and Know Your Rights trainings for Central American asylum-seekers with local congregations and RAICES.
  • Presenting in large-scale UU settings such as the Annual General Assembly and the Walking the Walk Justice Summit of the UU Justice Ministry of California and the UU Justice Arizona Network.
  • Mobilizing, through our work with the Ministerial Leadership Network and the Unitarian Universalists Ministerial Association, more than 600 Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign onto an open letter from faith leaders to Donald Trump calling upon him to retract his call for banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
  • Connecting Unitarian Universalists to interfaith initiatives and events to welcome refugees as part of the Refugees Welcome Coalition.



Left Out

Refugees in Europe

Thousands of refugees have been stranded in Europe’s eastern border zones the past few weeks in increasingly abysmal conditions and with no hope of advancing on their journey. Why? Because they happen to come from the “wrong” country. UUSC is working with partners on the ground to ensure refugees’ right to seek safe refuge no matter their country of origin.

Refugees being left out

On November 17, four Balkan countries — Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia — began closing their borders to anyone who could not prove Syrian, Afghani, or Iraqi nationality. Thousands of people with extremely serious protection needs are being denied asylum as a result. Some of the excluded refugees are people who lost their legal documents in flight (an all too common occurrence when people are running for their lives). Others are children born in exile or people who have been displaced from multiple conflicts in the Middle East (including many Palestinian and Iraqi refugees who are coming from Syria).

Thousands of refugees entering Europe do not originate from one of the three “approved” countries (Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan) but have just as urgent a need for protection. These include Yemeni children who have fled Saudi bombs and forced recruitment into rebel armies in their native country, Iranian survivors of torture and persecution, and countless others from Pakistan, Libya, Eritrea, Morocco, and elsewhere. Such refugees are resorting to desperate measures to convey to the world the urgency of their plight: last week, one group of Iranian refugees sewed their own lips shut in protest.

Reports from UUSC partners on the ground

The result of blocking out thousands of desperate refugees has been foreseeably calamitous. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding at the small Greek village of Idomeni, close to the Macedonian border, where as many as 3,000 people have been stranded at facilities equipped to house only a fraction of that number.

Praksis, UUSC’s new partner, is one of a handful of organizations providing food and medical care to this population, so far in the absence of any help from the Greek government or the European Union (EU). Praksis recently reported to us the appalling conditions their staff are witnessing on the ground in Idomeni:

“Many people are sleeping and waiting on the ground, the camp extending to the fields nearby while temperatures during night drop below zero. To heat themselves, refugees put into the fire all kinds of litter and the atmosphere is covered by a choking black cloud.

“Furthermore, there is increasing tension between ethnicities, including a protesters’ blockade that delayed the crossings. Tension has culminated since the death of a 22-year-old Moroccan who climbed a wagon because he had no proper place to sleep and died of an electroshock from the electric wire of the railway infrastructure. Conflicts rise among those who can pass and those who cannot. Desperation and anger are taking over.”

Meanwhile, the Asylum Protection Center, UUSC’s partner in Serbia, reports witnessing a striking decline in the number of people entering the country via Macedonia the past few weeks, due largely to these draconian new restrictions.

Discrimination: illegal and immoral

Refugees have a universal right under international law to cross borders and fairly present their case for asylum on an individual basis. In the words of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which all EU member states are party, every government must apply this right to asylum seekers “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin” (Article 3).

To exclude asylum seekers solely because of where they come from or what papers they carry is not only against the law — it is also deeply immoral. It leaves out of consideration thousands of refugees who are in imminent need of protection but who don’t come from approved countries. It tears apart families who are of mixed nationality. It further marginalizes stateless people, who are already uniquely vulnerable on the migration trail because of their lack formal recognition. Finally, as our partners at Praksis are already witnessing on the ground, discriminatory policies cruelly pit different ethnic groups of refugees against one another, despite the fact that they are all survivors of the same kinds of violence at home and are experiencing the same long journey to safety.

Immediate responsibility for these unjust policies falls to the Balkan countries that have implemented them, but other Western governments bear a portion of it as well. EU leaders have so far completely failed to condemn the border closures; nor have they yet managed to craft a coherent resettlement plan to equitably provide for refugees across its member.

Meanwhile, many U.S. politicians are deliberately contributing to a toxic anti-refugee rhetoric that makes draconian border restrictions like these possible. In the immediate wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, more than two dozen U.S. states said they would not accept resettlement of additional Syrian refugees. In the past few weeks, the governors of Texas, Indiana, and Louisiana all directed state agencies to refuse resettlement support to any people from Syria who are referred by federal authorities, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. Texas this week relented on its anti-refugee stance, but Indiana’s Mike Pence is continuing to defend his blatantly discriminatory policies.

UUSC’s response

UUSC upholds the right of all people to seek asylum across borders, irrespective of their place of origin or documented status. That is why UUSC is partnering with following organizations:

  • Praksis in Greece to ensure decent reception conditions for new arrivals
  • The Helsinki Committee in Hungary to reunite refugee families
  • The Asylum Protection Center in Serbia to provide comprehensive mobile aid across the migration trail
  • The Center for Peace Studies in Croatia to provide long-term resettlement support to refugees

In all aspects of its response, UUSC seeks to protect the rights of people on the margins of society, to decriminalize migration, and to ensure refugees have power over their own destinies.

This article was written by Josh Leach, intern for UUSC’s Rights at Risk Program.