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An update from the War Zone

Stopping the refugees

One of the main factors cited for the June 24 vote by UK citizens to leave the European Union (EU) was the feeling that neither the EU nor the UK could manage the flow of immigrants into the EU.

Given the EU’s incompetent, ad hoc, and often illegal response to the massive and on-going refugee crisis, this was a legitimate concern. I doubt, however, that leaving the EU will do much to remedy the refugee crisis or protect England from the aftermath of its on-going bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. In fact, the refugee crisis, certainly in Syria and Iraq, is growing in severity.

Here’s an update with a focus on Syria

Syria has a population of approximately 22 million people. As a result of the on-going war in Syria begun in March 2011 by the Assad regime, as of the end of 2015, there are 250,000 dead, over 1.7 million injured, 6.5 million internally displaced citizen. In 2015 alone, there were 1.1 million newly displaced Syrians.

According to a UNHCR update of June 16, 2016, there are 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees, 2.1 million in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, 2.7 million in Turkey, several hundred thousand in Iraq and 29,000 in North Africa. A registered refugee is someone who has been registered by the UNHCR.  This figure does not necessarily include all Syrians who have been forced to leave their country.

In Turkey, about 300,000 Syrian refugees are housed in camps along the Turkish/Syrian border. The remaining 2.4 million Syrian refugees are living outside the camps. There are a reported half million in Istanbul and 300,000 in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city. Turkey initially welcomed Syrian refugees and viewed them as “guests.”  However, Syrians are not allowed to request asylum or seek permanent residence in Turkey. Due to pressure from the European Union, Turkey has begun providing “temporary protection” and issuing work permits, but it is no longer welcoming Syrians across its eastern border.

In Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian refugees overwhelmed the resources of these countries. In Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people, one out of every four persons is a Syrian refugee. There are a reported 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In Jordan, a country of 6.4 million people, there are 900,000 to 1.4 million Syrian refugees.  There are no rights to asylum, permanent residence, or work permits in these two countries.

Both Lebanon and Jordan began to restrict entrance of Syrian refugees in 2015, leading many refugees to try to enter Europe through Turkey to the Greek Islands. In 2015, about 1.1 million war refugees (Syrian, Afghans, Iraqis, etc.) entered Europe, 850,000 by sea to a Greek island, 500,000 of those refugees landed on the Greek island of Lesvos just off the Turkish coast.

In August, 2014, the U.S., along with its European allies, including the UK, began its fourth Gulf War by initiating a bombing campaign in both Syria and Iraq and the reintroduction of ground troops.  As of May 2016, the US has spent $7 billion dollars on this campaign and carried out 9,309 air strikes, 3,644 in Syria alone.  This means that the Syrian people are currently being bombed by the Assad regime, the US, its partners: Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, UAE, UK, and Turkey.  Russia joined in with its own bombing campaign of Syrian people in September 2015. As you might imagine, this on-going bloodletting produces more refugees than either the EU or US wants.

They continue to escape war

Despite EU member states closing their borders to Greece, restricting their asylum procedures and making a deal with Turkey to return refugees, war refugees are still attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

As of June 22, 2016, there have been 215,380 arrivals by sea with 2,868 dead or missing in 2016.  Of those arrivals by sea, 157,801 are in Greece, 56,227 in Italy, and some 1,352 in Spain.  The top three nationalities are Syrian (38%), Afghanistan (20%) and Iraq (12%).

There are also indications that hundreds of thousands of war refugees are in Libya attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.  These refugees are mostly from West Africa, but are being joined by Syrians and others from US war zones in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.  On Sunday, June 26, the Italian Coast Guard rescued 3,500 refugees. The week before, they rescued 5,000 attempting the dangerous crossing to Italy.

Since March 20, 2016, it has been the clear policy of the EU to stop the flow of refugees to the EU, even as three of its leading members, the UK, France and the Netherlands, continue to bomb both Syria and Iraq. One of the most startling aspects of the most recent EU policy paper on migration issued in June was the absence of the word “war” in its twenty pages, even though it purported to address the “root causes” of the migration crisis.

Relocate and Resettlement

Before announcing its clear intent to stop refugee flows, the EU had announced two new programs. Neither of these programs functioned.  The first was called “Relocation.” The second was called “Resettlement.”  In 2015, the European Union announced a two-year plan to relocate 160,000 refugees who were in Greece and Italy to another European country where they could apply for asylum. As of June 2016 only 2,280 of the 160,000 had been relocated 1,503 from Greece and 777 from Italy. That’s 157,720 left to go by December, 2016.  On July 20, 2015, the EU agreed to resettle 22,504 refugees to 19 resettling European countries from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. As of June 10, 2016, there have been 7,272 people resettled.  That leaves 15,232 left to go.

While neither of their very modest relocation and resettlement plans appears to function, the EU is banking on its EU-Turkey Agreement as the model of the future.

The EU-Turkey Agreement: Stop the flow of refugees

The purpose of this agreement, which came into force March 20, 2016, was to stop the flow of refugees into Europe via the Greek islands—the main route during 2015.  In exchange for stopping the traffickers Turkey would receive 6 billion euros over a two-year period, visa-free travel, for its citizens in the Schengen area of the European Union. Accession talks for Turkey’s entry into the European Union would also be re-initiated.

In addition, this agreement meant that for every Syrian returned to Turkey after March 20, 2016, Turkey would send one Syrian to an EU country.  However, as of May 18, 2016, less than 400 Syrians have been returned from Greece to Turkey and only 177 Syrians have been resettled in an EU country. These figures improved by mid-June when the EU reported that 511 Syrians had been resettled from Turkey to a EU Country.

While the numbers of Syrians resettled in an EU country as a result of this agreement is beyond modest, it has in fact substantially reduced the numbers of refugees coming to Greece by sea.  Those who reach Greece after March 20, 2016, are placed in jails guarded by the Greek army and they are subject to being returned to Turkey unless they can successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

On June 7, 2016, the agreement was challenged in the General Court of the European Union seeking that the agreement be annulled on various grounds arguing that Turkey is not a “safe third country” and that Greece does not have a competent and accessible asylum system.  In addition to this legal challenge, it’s possible that the agreement will not hold on the Turkish end as the EU is refusing to implement the visa free travel portion of the agreement until Turkey changes more of its domestic terrorism laws. Nevertheless, the EU announced its new “Partnership Framework” modeled on this agreement.

EU Partnership Framework: IDPs in-Country or Refugees in Transit Countries

Due to on-going US and European wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees keeps growing.  In response, the European Union has announced a new scheme called the Partnership Framework to keep all those IDPs and Refugees in place.

EU development aid programs, trade policy and access to EU markets will be linked to the migration policies of their “partner states.”  In other words, the EU is willing to pay countries like Syria or West African countries to keep the internally displaced people in their own country or keep the refugees in transit countries, like Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt or Libya.  How this will actually work in those countries that can barely employ or subsidize their own people boggles the mind, but there it is—the best the EU is willing to offer.  Any notion of a safe and legal access system to asylum is as far away as the notion of stopping war or the export of weapons so people can kill each other.

This Partnership Framework to contain migration has also been condemned by 109 NGOs in anticipation of the European Council’s meeting of June 28-29, 2016.  In their joint statement, they warn that the EU “is about to embark on a dark chapter of its history.”  They call upon EU leaders “to choose a rights-based system to manage migration…rather than pursuing an unattainable and inhumane deterrence objective and thereby abandoning its core founding principles.”

What’s next

UN sponsored peace talks. The “cessation of hostilities” lasted for about two months until April, 2016, when the negotiators opposed to the Assad regime walked out of the Geneva talks.  They said they couldn’t stay there while Assad continued his bombing of Aleppo. The UN envoy to Syria has stated there might be more clarity after the June 29 Security Council meeting. He hoped peace talks will begin again in July.

The UN General Assembly is holding a Summit on Refugees and Migrants at their New York headquarters on September 19.  The next day, President Obama is hosting a “Donors Conference” to organize support for refugee assistance. Given Obama’s inability to meet his pledge of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees by September 2016, there is little indication he will be the model of resettlement. Only 1,285 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the US as of March, 2016.

The current reality

If one wants to see what “keeping refugees in place” means, one can look at what’s happening to the 59,000 refugees in Greece that were stuck there before the EU-Turkey agreement went into effect.

About 50,000 of these refugees are on the Greek mainland and 9,000 are on the islands. Almost all are now housed in newly constructed prison camps run by the Greek Army.  If refugees want to seek asylum in Greece or relocation in an EU country, they have to be in a Greek Army prison camp.

The capacity of the Greek Asylum system to process these requests is overburdened. And, due to deteriorating conditions inside these camps, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has hired the notorious British-based global security firm G4S to guard its staff.

As of June 19, 2016, 7,247 of the 50,000 refugees on the Greek mainland have been preregistered for asylum processing, but the process itself will only begin once everyone is registered.

Meanwhile, refugees are in a virtual prison while the EU and the US continue to export war and weapons while trying to keep the refugees from public view.

Dan Leahy is a resident of Olympia’s Westside and spent the month of February along with his wife, Bethany Weidner, working with refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos. 



  1. Sarah McKechnie (Turkey TESL 13) July 11, 2016

    Thank you for this overview.

  2. Karen Reiter July 11, 2016

    Hi Dan,
    I’m a T17 RPCV. My husband (RPCV Thailand) and I are wondering what Americans can do to help bring more Syrians here.

  3. Dave Vandegrift/T-8 July 12, 2016

    Thank you for clarifying the sequence and complexity of the current problem. I appreciated the irony of the EU’s new scheme called the “Partnership Framework”, in counterpoint with keeping refugees safe in Greek Army prison camps. There’s nothing like a framework-cum-prison-camp for keeping things contained and orderly. One thing we all can do to help resettle our share of these refugees in the U.S. is to consider how we vote for politicians at all levels of government–national, state, and local–in November. Local government can be as helpful or obstructive in its own sphere.

  4. Kenan July 13, 2016

    There is no guarantee in life, nowhere, not any time. But putting people in a refugee situation is cruel and inhuman. It was just announced in a TV show in Turkey, by an attorney in international law, that ”Turkey can only receive refugees from western countries under certain conditions so as keep her relationships with her neighbours in good standing”.
    So, it seems that all that rhetoric about the Syrians’ being made Turkish citizens is a political farce.
    All there is to be done is to stop the wars in the Middle East and everywhere else so that people will not die or become refugees, or become victims to companies like Halliburton and global security firms like G4S.

  5. Mike Basile July 13, 2016

    Let me add thanks to Dan’s on-site report…here at home we’re subject to what our media choose to cover and not to cover. One question for Dan (and others?): the EU’s rationale for delaying lifting travel restrictions on refugees is based on Turkey’s recent implementation of stricter anti-terrorism laws, many of which are imposed to suppress Kurdish activism, both domestic as well as regional. Given the unlikelihood of the current Turkish regime easing such restrictions, are we not at an impasse at least on the Turkish front?

  6. Mehmet July 24, 2016

    To the person who wrote about the political farce. What you heard from that Intl Law Attorney (can you please show the documentary proof?) and copied is simply an incorrect/absurd/erratic/racist statement that has sadly influenced your opinion. Poor Turkey –land of refugees akin to USA- spent so far “3,000,000 refugees * $2000/refugee= 6 billon USD” an amount taken from Turkey’s taxpayers’ and really what did others incl. USA do or spend? I commend and thank Don Leahy’s first–hand and first-class impartial humane report. If someone heard about that so-called Attorney’s verbiage, it would be Don L. first to have heard and published it. It is always easy to jump the gun. The question is what is each world citizen doing to stop the war rather than implanting religious warmongering hostility as we witnessed at the Cleveland Convention? Plus, in Germany for decades since 1960 even the second or third generation Turkish guest workers are still not granted German citizenship!@

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