Closing Borders, Shifting Routes: Summary of Regional Migration Trends Middle East – May, 2016
Syrian Refugees: As the conflict in Syria reaches its sixth year, ongoing fighting continues to displace thousands of Syrians both within and outside of the country. As of May 31, 2016 UNHCR had registered a total 4,838,620 Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and North Africa since the conflict began. In the last month alone, 1,982 new individuals were registered (up 0.04%) since April 30, 2016. By mid-May the total figure had grown by 7,473 from April 30, 2016 to reach 4,844,111 individuals before dropping to the final end of May total. Of the total UNHCR registered Syrian refugees, 4,346,428 (90%) live in urban, peri-urban, or rural areas, while only 492,192 (10%) live in formal.
The majority are hosted by Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Conflict and Displacement: By the end of May, 2016 an estimated 6.5 million people were internally displaced within Syria. The majority are in the rural Damascus and Aleppo governorates. The February 27 Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) continued to breakdown in April and May with frequent reports of fighting including airstrikes on Syrian refugee camps and attacks on hospitals.
In the last week of May, more than 45,000 Syrians fled to the area between the Bab Al Salam border crossing with Turkey and the town of Azaz in Aleppo (known as the Azaz corridor). This was due to a large-scale offensive in Northern Aleppo by the so-called Islamic State. An additional 8,000 people fled to this area at the end of May due to a Syrian army offensive in Ar-Raqqa governorate, bringing the total number of people stranded at the border to more than 165,000. Since early May the advancement of government forces has caused the displacement of a further 13,600 Syrians in Eastern Ghouta, rural Damascus in addition to 45,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) reported in Al Hasakeh governorate since February, 2016.
As of January 2016, there were an estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, 280,000 of whom have been internally displaced. Since December 2015, figures show 39,500 Iraqi refugees residing within Syria.
Closing Borders: Despite nearly 5 million Syrians fleeing their country since the beginning of the conflict, the borders surrounding Syria are becoming increasingly closed. For Syrians today, very few legal routes to exit the country remain. Their situation is characterised by tightly controlled land borders, strict visa requirements to enter Lebanon, limited admissions at the Jordanian border and visa requirements for entry to Turkey by sea or air.
By the end of May, 2016, an estimated 165,000 people were stranded in Syria along the Turkish border. The border has remained closed for the past 15 months, with some medical exceptions (see Turkey section). This marks an increase of roughly 65,000 people since April 30, 2016. Between May 24 and 27 alone, approximately 45,000 people arrived at the border after fleeing advances by the so-called Islamic State in Azaz. There are also an estimated 72,000 displaced Syrians stranded between the two berms at Syria’s southern border with Jordan (see Jordan section). If the conflict in Syria continues, the number of those stranded at the Jordanian border is expected to reach 100,000 by the end of 2016.
On March 8, 2016 the Balkan route became closed to refugees and other mixed migrants following official border closures in Macedonia (FYROM), Croatia, and Slovenia.
By the end of April 2016, these closures effectively left close to 54,000 refugees and mixed migrants, including thousands of Syrians, stranded in Greece.
Eastern Mediterranean Route: In May 2016, UNHCR reported 1,721 boat arrivals in Greece – a 53% decrease from April, 2016 figures (which were already an 86% decrease from March 2016). Of the recorded May arrivals, 637 were Syrian (half the April figure), 258 Afghan, 224 Pakistani, 155 Iraqi, and 120 Algerian. The average daily arrivals in May were 56 individuals a day, less than half of the 122 person daily average in April. IOM reported no deaths along the Eastern Mediterranean route in May, 2016, as compared to 10 deaths reported in April. According to FRONTEX 77,735 Syrians have arrived in Greece along the Eastern Mediterranean route in the first 5 months of 2016.
EU-Turkey Agreement: On March 18, 2016 the European Union and Turkey made a controversial deal intended to stop the flow of refugees and other mixed migrants into Europe. Under the agreement, Turkey was reclassified as a ‘safe country’ meaning all ‘irregular migrants’ arriving in Greece after midnight on March 20, 2016 would be deported to Turkey. The agreement came in exchange for $6.8 billion in refugee-related aid to Turkey, visa free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe’s Schengen zone by June, and a ‘speeding-up’ of talks concerning Ankara’s accession to the EU. The deal also means that for every Syrian deported from Greece to Turkey, the EU will resettle one Syrian living in a Turkish refugee camp. The agreement came into force on March 20 and has been met with significant backlash concerning the legality of the agreement and the extent to which Turkey qualifies as a safe third country. These concerns were fuelled by reports of the forcible return of Afghan asylum seekers to Afghanistan hours after the EU-Turkey deal came into force.
Only 10 weeks after the implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement, media and commentators are describing a ‘dying,’ ‘faltering,’ and ‘sputter[ing]’ deal. Though forced deportations by boat from Greece to Turkey began on April 4, as of May 31, 2016 just over 400 people had been returned from Greece to Turkey, none of them Syrian.
However, some Syrians returned voluntarily. There are no specific numbers regarding the nationalities of the individuals deported but reports indicate that Pakistanis, Afghans and Bangladeshis were among those returned to Turkey. The move has, however, been credited with a drastic reduction of sea arrivals in Greece.
The agreement was dealt a blow on May 20, 2016 when a three person appeals tribunal in Lesbos ruled against sending a Syrian man back to Turkey. The appeal applicant was one of the first Syrians listed for deportation under the agreement, but the appeals committee ruled that the rights entitled to the applicant, under the Geneva convention, would not be upheld in Turkey. Amnesty International lauded this decision, saying that “Turkey is not safe for refugees.” The Greek government stated that the decision had created “a very difficult situation.”
Despite the fact that no Syrians have been involuntarily returned from Greece to Turkey, as of May 18, 2016, 177 Syrians have been resettled in EU countries - namely Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Lithuania. The European Commission indicated that 723 Syrians are currently awaiting transfer.
Other Routes to Europe: For the second consecutive month, more people arrived by sea to Italy (19,925 individuals) than to Greece (1,721 individuals). This does not, however, mark a significant shift by Syrians to the Central Mediterranean route to Europe. Despite the greater number of arrivals in Italy, FRONTEX claims that this is not related to shifting routes used by refugees and other mixed migrants stranded in Turkey. Arrivals in Italy are primarily from Eritrea, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Sudan, Mali, and Senegal, with no notable increase in Syrian arrivals.
Despite the closure of the Balkan route to Europe and fears that the EU-Turkey Agreement will significantly shift migration routes to the Bulgarian border, Bulgarian officials reported that the number of refugees and other mixed migrants entering Bulgaria from Turkey has dropped. In the first quarter of 2016, Bulgarian officials detected roughly 2,800 irregular crossings at the Turkish border, a 20% decrease from the 3,500 detected during the same period in 2015. The estimated daily average for arrivals varies, with border monitoring groups reporting only 50 refugees and other mixed migrant arrivals per day while the ICRC indicates that nearly 200 are arrested on a daily basis.
Bulgarian officials attribute the dropping numbers to increased Turkish policing at the border. As of March 31, 2016 Iraqis were the largest group apprehended by Bulgarian authorities at the border followed by Syrians, Afghans, and Pakistanis. People typically cross this densely forested border on foot or via official checkpoints, hiding in vehicles or buses. While the land border crossing removes the risks of travel by sea, there are other associated dangers with instances of push-backs and violence reportedly occurring at the border.
Alternative Destinations: For a growing number of Syrians, leaving the Middle East does not mean travelling to Europe. A recent series of IRIN reports highlight ‘Syrians in unexpected places’ like Mauritania, Sudan, Brazil, and Mali. These countries either offer humanitarian visas or no visa requirements at all. Additionally, some Syrians are using Brazil, Mali, and Mauritania as alternative routes to Europe.
Trafficking: Refugees Deeply has published an article detailing the trafficking risks faced by Syrian women en route to Europe. The piece details the connection between trafficking rings and organized gangs that help smuggle people into European countries.
Additionally, the sex trafficking of Syrian women is an ongoing and growing concern in Lebanon as highlighted by the dismantling of the country’s largest known sex trafficking ring in March 2016 (see Lebanon section).