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Risking lives, Syrians join asylum seekers of the world

Oct 01,2014 - Last updated at Oct 01,2014

Last week, Europe’s nearest landfall to the coast of Syria, Cyprus, received its first boatpeople and now faces the challenge posed by Syrian asylum seekers setting sail on leaky boats from Mediterranean ports.

That boat carried 345 migrants — 200 men, 93 women and 52 children — who paid as much as $6,000 a head to go to Italy. They left from the Syrian port of Latakia, but the vessel, a fishing trawler, broke down off the Cypriot coast and the passengers were rescued by a cruise ship that landed at the Cypriot port of Limassol.

The passengers were transported to a holding camp in a village near the capital, Nicosia. They have been offered medical treatment and shelter in prefabricated huts and tents while the authorities decide what to do with them.

Although bound for Italy, they are stuck in Cyprus for the time being at least, because Cyprus, as a member state of the European Union, has to abide the bloc’s regulations governing asylum seekers.

These regulations state that their fate will be decided by the authorities in the country where they first set foot.

Unfortunately for these boatpeople, Cyprus does not adopt a welcoming attitude towards migrants, nor do they have a good record in dealing with them.

Greece and Bulgaria are much worse, while Italy is the best.

Although the majority of the migrants who landed in Cyprus are Syrians, there are also some Palestinian residents of Syria among them. They have two strikes against them.  They are not only trying to escape from the Syrian war, like the Syrians, but are also stateless since Israel conquered their homeland in two stages in 1948 and 1967 and refuses to allow the return of refugees in spite of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948, which calls for their repatriation and compensation for their losses. 

If the migrants who arrived on Cypriot shores had fully understood the risk of death they faced when they boarded the trawler for Italy and the possibility of being stuck in Cyprus, they might not have made the journey. This is true also of Syrians who have travelled as far as Algeria in order to be transported in open lorries across the desert to Libya, where boats sail to Italy on daily basis.

Jamil, a young Palestinian friend from Damascus, his mother and two sisters joined the mass movement to Europe after a long hot summer’s debate in their dusty hotel rooms in the Old City near Bab Al Sharqi. In December 2012 they were driven by insurgents from their home in the Yarmouk suburb of Damascus and have been unable to settle down since then.

They set off for the Turkish border a few weeks ago by bus, which safely navigated a multitude of checkpoints manned by the Syrian army, rebel groups, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and Jabhat Al Nusra.

It took them 16 hours to get to the border, a journey which, in normal times, would take six. 

In Izmir, Turkey, they found themselves with thousands of refugees so they shifted to Bodrum, which was full of tourists. They found a hotel they could afford for a few days while they waited for a boat that did not come.

They moved back to Izmir from where Jamil sent an e-mail saying that they would be leaving for Greece. His third sister, who is in the Gulf, rang last weekend to say they took a boat that sank and were rescued by the Turkish police.

If they get to Greece, they will be stuck like the refugees in Cyprus until the local and EU authorities decide what to do with them. They have family in Amsterdam, Munich and other European cities, but this makes little difference. No one wants asylum seekers.

Desperate Syrians determined to risk their lives to escape war still do not understand this hard fact. 

The European Union feels itself to be overwhelmed with refugees, economic migrants and asylum seekers who are flooding into Mediterranean coastal states, particularly Italy, Malta and Greece. They come by the thousands from this region and Africa. 

More than 2,500 died this year alone trying to cross the Mediterranean in rickety vessels. UN figures show, however, that 86 per cent of migrants remain in developing countries.

Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are hosting the bulk of nearly four million refugees seeking to escape the war in Syria and are now receiving refugees from Iraq, once again.

In Lebanon, the smallest of the host countries, refugees account for nearly 30 per cent of the population. The vast majority is poor and housed in dire conditions, in informal tent camps, overcrowded flats or unfinished buildings.

However, Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouk announced that the government lifted its objection to UN-organised camps and will permit their construction. 

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said: “Syria became the worst humanitarian tragedy of our times.”

Nearly half the population of the country has become displaced within war-torn Syria or driven into neighbouring countries.

Thanks to the spillover from the Syrian conflict, northern Iraq is also being depopulated. Sunnis, Shiites and Yezidis are fleeing to the Kurdish autonomous region and Christians to Christian areas in Lebanon.

Regional host countries do not have the resources to shoulder the burden of these refugees. Last year, donors provided only 40 per cent of the budget of aid for those in Lebanon.  

Due to the lack of funds, the World Food Programme has decided to cut by 40 per cent rations for refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

In 2013, the agency raised only $4.4 billion to provide for 80 million refugees worldwide.

During a recent visit to Damascus, I met Syrian Arab Red Crescent operations chief Khaled Erksoussi who said that the countries giving money and arms for the war in that country should be required to spend equivalent sums to feed and shelter internally displaced Syrians and refugees.

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