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Syrian Refugee Crisis: Abandonment, Discrimination, and Response

The refugee crisis in the Middle East continues to swell as the civil war in Syria enters its seventh year. Ongoing atrocities of the Assad regime, including indiscriminate use of incendiary weapons and starvation siege tactics, as well as the escalating brutality of armed groups continue to displace millions of innocent people.

By on May 11, 2018

The length and severity of the conflict in Syria provoked an unprecedented wave of migrants seeking safe haven in neighboring countries. Several years ago, as the burden faced by some countries increased (particularly Greece, Italy, and Hungary), tensions arose in the European Union (EU). In September 2015, the EU Commission announced a plan to accept asylum-seekers from front-line Mediterranean countries under a quota system. The commitment consisted of relocating 160,000 people in need of international protection by September 2017. Failure to comply with the resettlement requirements of this plan would trigger a penalty of 250,000 euros (about $287,000) per migrant. As of September 2017, 17.3% of the target had been met.


Syria’s neighboring countries, in particular Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, are hosting the vast majority of the refugee population. However, none of these countries have fully ratified international agreements to protect refugees’ rights, and their governments have enacted discriminatory legislation against refugees, making it more difficult for them to obtain legal aid, work permits, education for children, and psychosocial assistance. This leaves refugees extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Despite the lack of protection and disproportionate numbers hosted by Syria’s neighboring countries, European governments sought a joint solution to prevent refugees from seeking protection in Europe. After the 2015 wave of refugees who arrived in Europe headed mostly for Germany and Sweden, the EU announced the closure of the Western Balkans route in March 2016, effectively trapping thousands of refugees in the midst of their journey. Major international donors pulled out of the region as the refugee flow was forcibly redirected, leaving few resources for those left behind. At the same time, the EU cleared the way for unlawful returns to Turkey declaring it a “safe third country,” despite its lack of refugee protections.

In February 2017, as part of their continuous effort to prevent migrants from reaching European shores, the EU agreed to give Libya’s government $215 million to stop migrant boats in the country’s territorial waters and set up refugee camps. Libya has also extended its “Search and Rescue” zone into international waters, restricting access to humanitarian vessels. As a result, last summer, groups such as Médecins Sans Frontieres, Save the Children, and Sea Eye suspended their rescue operations.

These impediments have not stopped the migration. In fact, hundreds of thousands of migrants still cross the Mediterranean from Africa into Italy every year, and arrivals via the old route of Macedonia and Serbia, or from Turkey via Bulgaria and Serbia, still happen every day. Since March 2016 the journey has only become more difficult, more expensive, and more dangerous.

The callous abandonment of goodwill toward refugees is visible outside of Europe as well. In the United States, President Trump has drastically lowered the refugee admissions cap and signed an executive order that barred entry to the United States to refugees from 11 countries, including war-torn Syria. The United States is also witnessing a surge in xenophobic and Islamophobic political rhetoric, and with it a rise in reported hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities.

Refugees, who face death if they are returned home, are confronted with terrible uncertainty and limitations on their rights every way they turn.

Balkans Migrant Route: County-by-Country Status

The situation along the Balkan route differs from country to country. For the first months of 2015, when migrants and refugees were allowed to pass through informal border crossings, the Balkan route started in Turkey, then went from Greece through Macedonia and Serbia into Hungary. A secondary route also beginning in Turkey formed through Bulgaria into Serbia and continued through Hungary. Upon crossing Hungary, refugees and migrants continued toward northern countries in Europe.

Map 1. The Balkan route, pre-March 2016, Source: Eurostat, Frontex


As of April 15, there are approximately 3,722 new refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Serbia, a decrease of almost 50 percent since last year. These individuals are mostly accommodated in camps set up by the Serbian authorities. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate with the consent of the Commissariat for Refugees (CRS) inside the camps to provide basic necessities such as food, shelter, and medical care. Most people wait to enter Hungary based on an unofficial list.

Attempts to cross the Hungary-Croatia border occur regularly and are met with resistance that is sometimes very violent.


At the end of 2017, Hungary had 678 people in asylum proceedings and had granted 1,216 people protection. Since January 2018, only two people per day have been admitted, which Hungarian authorities deny. During the asylum procedure, asylum-seekers cannot leave the transit area, and NGOs are denied access. The process can last many months, and those who are denied asylum are sent back to Serbia. Those who are successful in their application are moved to an open camp.

Detention conditions in Hungary are unfit for the long stay of migrants and refugees. UUSC partner, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee argued the appeal of a case to the European Court of Human Rights, which found the country in violation of the prohibition of inhuman treatment. The European Court has also issued temporary measures ordering the transfer of applicants to more humane centers, but Hungary has not complied.

Migrants found outside the transit zone are regularly pushed back to Serbia through the use of beatings, pepper spray, and attack dogs. The Hungarian state has also deployed 3,000 additional “border hunters,” to support police monitoring the border.

NGOs in Hungary, including our partner the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have taken a firm stand for the protection of the human rights of refugees, assisting refugees and raising awareness of their plight, while initiating numerous successful strategic litigation cases against the government. As a result, the government has placed restrictions on NGOs’ work and many have been accused of being illegitimate foreign agents or advocates of potential “terrorists.” The government recently proposed legislation that would require NGOs assisting migrants to obtain a licence, thereby providing a mechanism that allows the government to shut these organizations down.

On April 8, 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s coalition was re-elected. His administration has taken a hard-line approach to immigration that is often inflammatory and laced with islamophobic rhetoric. He now claims a mandate to handle the refugee situation and has refused to honor the quota set by the EU in addition to passing the anti-NGO legislation as the first order of business for the new parliament.


About 880 people applied for protection status in Croatia in 2017. Asylum-seekers are mostly accommodated in two centers in Zagreb and Kutina. NGOs have access to those centers.

Croatia has increased restrictions on refugees. In many cases, status has been denied because of alleged “security checks” conducted by police forces. The basis of these decisions are not disclosed to the applicant, and therefore cannot be challenged.

Croatian police have been responsible for a number of pushbacks against migrants seeking entry, some of them particularly violent. NGOs have began accompanying refugees and migrants to the police station to prevent their forced deportation and ensure their safety.

UUSC’s Response Strategy in the Face of Changing Political Context 

UUSC works in areas overlooked by traditional relief agencies where we know our efforts can spur solutions on the ground that center the needs and voices of affected people. Beginning in 2015, we responded to this crisis with a strategy to partner with organizations working on the front lines to support Syrian refugees across their entire journey, from first arrival in neighboring countries to successful resettlement in Europe or the United States. Key components of this effort included:

  • Emergency aid and resettlement support in Greece, Croatia, and Serbia: Working with partners including Are You Syrious and the Centre for Peace Studies to document human rights abuses, as well as offer medical aid, mental health support, and resettlement assistance to long-term refugees.
  • Legal access in Hungary, Jordan, and the United States: With partners such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Arab Renaissance for Democracy — Legal Aid we are 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: Together with our partners the Arab American Civic Council and Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, among others, we are raising public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues, challenging xenophobic sentiments and legislation and upholding the inherent dignity of immigrant communities.

As discussed above, in just a few short years the circumstances facing refugees have changed drastically. Our current strategy responds to the fact that what were once “transit countries” are increasingly “countries of permanent stay.” UUSC is now supporting refugees in Greece, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, and Macedonia to ensure:

  • Access to protection: Combating illegal border pushbacks, protecting right to asylum – primarily through monitoring, advocacy and legal aid.
  • Refugee integration: Community organizing and family reunification.

We also continue our efforts to support civil society and relationship-building, and organized a partner-led convening in Europe last fall to facilitate collaboration between our partners on the ground, as we support advocacy efforts and litigation to increase refugee admissions and resettlement in the United States.

Through this work UUSC strives to uphold the dignity and human rights of refugees, providing a compassionate response to a crisis that is as urgent as ever.

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