Syrian refugees are spread out across the world, from Brazil to the Gaza Strip to Sweden.
Turkey has taken the brunt so far, with around three million Syrians sheltering in the country. The next four big hosts are Lebanon (around 1.1 million), Jordan (600,000), Iraq (almost 250,000) and Egypt (over 130,000), according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Within Syria, there are estimated to be 7.6 million internally displaced people, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
In the European Union, refugees from Syria are concentrated in Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria, Austria, and Hungary, according to Eurostat/ECHO. But there are substantial numbers across the EU, along with several thousand in Switzerland.
‘Challenges vary, of course, from person to person and family to family. One of the most difficult challenges for many Syrian refugees is that they suffer from being separated from family members and friends,’ says Cynthia Orchard, co-author of Protection in Europe for Refugees from Syria, published by the University of Oxford Refugee Studies Centre. This experience is often combined with trauma from losing family members in the war, or persecution during the journey to Europe.
‘Trying to deal with these issues, particularly in a new country where they don’t know the culture or the language is very, very difficult,’ says Orchard. ‘That said, many, perhaps most, refugees exhibit an amazing resilience. They go on to learn new languages, new professions, forge new friendships, and to make very positive contributions to their new countries.’
Bulgaria might seem an unusual choice as a new home, an outlier as a host for refugees. ‘The main reason for the high number of Syrian refugees in Bulgaria is geographical proximity to Syria – Bulgaria and Greece are the only EU countries to share a land border with Turkey, which shares a long land border with Syria,’ says Orchard.
But Bulgaria, with a GDP smaller than Luxembourg’s, is perhaps among the least ready to deal with a refugee influx.
‘Yes, of course, it is harder for countries which are struggling economically, such as Bulgaria, to meet the challenges of hosting a relatively large increase in the number of refugees,’ says Orchard. ‘However, all EU countries are required by law to meet certain standards for the reception and treatment of refugees, and Bulgaria is getting support from agencies such as EASO [European Asylum Support Office] and UNHCR to assist in meeting those standards,’ she adds.
In 2013, the EU provided €5.6million (around £4million) in emergency support for Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. The money was earmarked for accommodation, speeding up processing and food, medical and psychological assistance, according to the Commission’s own report.
As migrant ships continue to cross the Mediterranean, the Commission’s proposals for migrant relocation in response to that crisis are likely to affect where Syria’s refugees end up. Syrian refugees who arrived in Greece after May 2015 are among those to be relocated, according to the European Migration Agenda.
‘Everyone who needs sanctuary should find it in Europe. But those who have no justified claim should be quickly identified and returned to their home country. This is essential for migration policies to be well accepted in society,’ said Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the Commission, announcing the Agenda.
The words sound generous and just, but the impact on refugees is not certain.
‘I hope that plans to redistribute Syrian refugees throughout Europe will positively impact Syrian refugees, but the impact of such a programme depends very much on how it is done,’ says Orchard.
‘Any relocation or redistribution should take into account not only numbers of refugees and economic and demographic factors of the countries involved, but also humanitarian concerns, such as the location of refugees’ family members or friends in Europe. It’s much easier for refugees to adapt and begin to rebuild their lives if they have support from family members or friends nearby,’ she adds.
Previous European relocation programmes, such as EUREMA, have affected relatively small numbers of refugees, according to Orchard.
But urgency should be attached to resettling refugees from countries bordering Syria rather than those already in Europe, she adds. ‘European countries need to continue to expand the number of refugees they are admitting through resettlement, humanitarian admission, temporary protection, student scholarship, or other programmes.’
EU countries only host four per cent of the total Syrian refugee population, according to the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence.
‘In my opinion, it would be a much more compassionate, and in the long-term, sustainable, response to spend resources on increasing avenues for refugees to enter Europe legally and safely than on building fences to keep refugees out or to blow up boats off the coast of Libya,’ says Orchard.
For now, it’s relocation that EU wants to see – along with continued financial support to Syrian refugees outside the Union, with around €3.6billion (£2.5billion) spent on supporting refugees in countries neighbouring Syria since the crisis began.
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