Last updated: 13 December, 2013

Amnesty: European response to Syrian refugees “pitiful'”

European Union leaders should “hang their heads in shame” at their failure to provide safe haven for Syrian refugees fleeing the brutal conflict, Amnesty International said on Friday.

In a new report, the rights group condemned EU member states for their response to a UN appeal to resettle some of the most vulnerable Syrians forced to leave their homes.

Amnesty also criticised the bloc for making it so difficult to enter the EU legally, and for leaving those who manage to get through the border languishing in squalid detention centres.

“The EU has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives,” said Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty.

“The number of those it’s prepared to resettle is truly pitiful. Across the board European leaders should hang their heads in shame.”

As winter storms brought fresh misery to hundreds of thousands of refugees sheltering in tents in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, Amnesty urged the EU to do more to ease pressure on Syria’s neighbours.

The EU has accepted 55,000 asylum seekers from Syria, according to the Amnesty report, but the Middle East continues to bear the brunt of a refugee crisis that has seen an estimated 2.3 million people flee Syria.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed in October for resettlement places for 30,000 of the most vulnerable Syrians over the next year.

EU nations have offered 12,340 places so far, Amnesty said, noting that the vast majority — 10,000 — are in Germany, while 18 member states offered no places at all.

“The EU must open its borders, provide safe passage and halt these deplorable human rights violations,” added Shetty.

In response to the criticism, the French foreign ministry said the 500 places it has offered in response to the UNHCR appeal are in addition to 3,700 Syrians accepted over the past two years.

“France is taking in as many of them as possible, and we are also supporting Syria’s neighbours who are taking in refugees,” a spokesman told AFP.

Britain is among the countries with no resettlement programme, but a spokesman for the interior ministry said it was focused on providing humanitarian aid to the region.

“We are one of the highest international donors to the Syrian relief effort — our £500 million ($800 million, 600 million euros) pledged so far is more than the other EU member states combined,” he said.

‘Risking life and limb’

Hundreds of people die each year trying to reach Europe by sea in overcrowded, leaky boats, while those that try their luck on land can be poorly treated and are often turned back.

In Bulgaria, where an estimated 5,000 Syrian refugees arrived between January and November, Amnesty said it had found people “living in squalid conditions in containers, a dilapidated building and in tents”.

“It is deplorable that many of those who have risked life and limb to get here, are either forced back or detained in truly squalid conditions with insufficient food, water or medical care,” said Shetty.

Refugees trying to cross from Turkey to Greece reported being met by gun-wielding, hooded officials who stripped them of their belongings before sending them back.

“They put all the men lying on the boat. They stepped on us and hit us with their weapons for three hours,” explained one man picked up by the Greek coastguard near the island of Samos in October.

“Then at around 10 in the morning, after removing the motor, they put us back to our plastic boat and drove us back to the Turkish waters and left us in the middle of the sea.”

About 126,000 people are believed to have died since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a crackdown following a series of pro-democracy protests in March 2011.