As the Syrian conflict continues, the EU is seeing a spike in refugees, along with Turkey.
By Menekse Tokyay for Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 18/09/13
Nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees have come to Turkey, where they are able to stay only temporarily. [AFP]
The sharply increasing number of refugees fleeing war-ravaged Syria has placed immense pressure on Turkey, and now the European Union also is dealing with the influx.
The Syrian civil war was a primary focus of the EU's annual asylum report, which was released earlier this month and detailed the impact the two-year-old conflict is having. While hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are now being sheltered in Turkey, the report revealed that Syrians have become the EU's fastest increasing group of asylum seekers, with almost 25,000 in 2012 -- more than triple the number in 2011.
Germany, France and Sweden have received the most asylum applications, primarily from Afghanistan, Russia and Syria. In total, the EU received 335,365 asylum applications in 2012.
According to UN statistics, the number of Syrian refugees around the world has exceeded 2 million since the fighting began in March 2011.
The report states Turkey is "one of the most important transit countries for third-country nationals seeking to enter the EU as evidenced by the high number of irregular border crossings at the Greek-Turkish border and later via the Eastern Mediterranean sea route and the Western Balkans."
In 2012, Turkey received 6,210 asylum applications and ranks 18th out of the top 30 countries for asylum applicants. According to the statistics of Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Administration (AFAD), there are approximately 300,000 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the number has already reached 450,000.
Turkey signed the 1951 UN refugee convention with a provision that those who don't come from Europe won't have refugee status. Thus, the Syrians who have fled to Turkey can stay there only temporarily, until they can be resettled in another country that will admit them as refugees or until it is safe to return to Syria.
Due to its location, Turkey is a bridge for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants each year to reach European countries.
The current lack of strict security along Syria-Turkey border allows refugees to easily cross the border, especially in the towns of Ceylanpinar in Sanliurfa province and Reyhanli in Hatay province. The situation has heightened concerns about the uncontrolled flow of people and contraband goods, likely to be used by criminal organisations.
Metin Corabatir, administrator of the Asylum and Migration Research Centre in Ankara and former spokesperson in Turkey for the UNHCR, said that although Turkey adopted an open border policy and provided protection for nearly half a million Syrian refugees, it refused to operationally collaborate with UNHCR and other experienced organisations.
"[Turkey] does not have a legal framework for dealing with mass influx situations. As the numbers increase, these gaps in the national asylum system have created problems which are increasingly becoming more difficult to address," Corabatir told SETimes. "UNHCR is, above all, tasked to monitor protection issues. Its involvement in operations reduces the protection risks of refugees. Secondly, UNHCR and similar international organisations have large experiences in such massive refugee flows. Operational co-operation with them would make such an operation more efficient and provides better safety of refugees as well as better access to assistance."
He added that European and international concerns arise from Turkey's decision to run this large humanitarian operation by itself while also managing its borders and immigration flows.
"The gaps in the Turkish asylum system have always been a matter of concern for the EU. Many irregular migrants, and even the recognized refugees, try to enter into EU territory from Turkey because of the deficits in the system," Corabatir said, adding that Turkey's insistence upon maintaining the geographical limitation to the UN refugee convention creates an obstacle for co-operation between Turkey and the EU on asylum and migration issues.
"As the numbers increase, finding resettlement countries becomes more and more difficult, even impossible," Corabatir said. "The longer waiting periods and loss of hope force many of them to resort to smugglers and take risks to go illegally to Europe."
Romania has also seen an increase in the number of Syrian refugees, as a transit country between Turkey and the Schengen area.
"A larger number of Syrians ask for asylum in Central Europe, 1,821 applications being registered in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2013. With 476 asylum applications, Romania comes second in Central Europe after Bulgaria (709 applications), followed by Hungary," UNHCR’s office in Bucharest said in a statement sent to SETimes.
"In January-June 2013, Romania registered an overall 711 asylum applications, 476 coming from Syrian nationals, while 366 of the latter received some sort of protection," the statement said.
On September 10th, Romanian authorities announced they had dismantled a refugee trafficking network consisting of 30 nationals specialized in transporting Syrian citizens from Turkey to Germany, following a joint investigation with the Bulgarian and German police.
Judicial authorities say the network illegally introduced about 100 Syrians in Romania by boats on the Black Sea before hiding them in trucks heading to Germany.
Piril Ercoban, director of the Solidarity With Refugees Association in Izmir, said increased obstacles to legal immigration that have resulted from crisis regions like Syria and Afghanistan pushed people to use irregular ways like going through Turkey.
"Although some European countries like Germany and Sweden began to accept Syrian refugees by giving them residence permits to bring back their families, these efforts are not sufficient to manage the immigration flows," Ercoban said.
Ercoban added that there is a need for the EU to take further responsibilities to develop its asylum regime and manage its borders by respecting refuges' rights.
Correspondent Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest contributed to this report.
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