Refuge at Risk: The Syria Crisis and U.S. Leadership

The Syrian conflict has provided the context for some of the world’s most extreme human rights abuses this year. The U.S. threat of force against President Assad this summer led to an international agreement to dismantle the regime’s chemical weapons program. Despite the presence of international weapons monitors in the country and preparations for a peace process in Geneva, however, relentless, widespread, and systematic attacks on civilians in Syria continue. More than 115,000 people have been killed; an estimated 6.5 million are displaced within Syria, and more than two million have fled. The United Nations reports that 9.3 million people inside the country need life-saving assistance, but access is being blocked or delayed, primarily by the regime. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt are all hosting large numbers of refugees. The influx is straining these countries, and the U.N. estimates that another two million people will flee Syria in the next year. If other countries don’t increase their support and advocacy for the protection of Syria’s refugees, this crisis will deepen and threaten to further destabilize the region.

How the United States addresses this refugee crisis will be a critical test for U.S. leadership in the region. The displacement of millions of Syrians is likely to be a defining feature of the Middle East for many years to come. Too many Syrian children run the risk of growing up without education and struggling to survive — deprivations that could have lasting affects for generations. Vital human rights protections –long championed by the United States — are being undermined, sending a message that the international community will stand by while people fleeing brutal conflict and persecution are turned away at borders. Syria’s neighbors face massive challenges too in hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees while at the same time addressing the needs of their citizens. This is a major crisis that requires a range of international engagement by many countries and international agencies.

Beyond the moral imperative, it is in the clear strategic interest of the U.S. government to lead this international effort. Destabilization of the region, which includes countries closely allied with the United States, would deal a blow to American foreign policy priorities. A strong and sustained effort to help Syrian civilians would help bolster American credibility and influence in a region where perceptions of the United States are often negative. And by standing up for Syria’s civilians, the United States can send a strong message that respecting human rights is central to upholding security as well as saving lives. Although the task is massive, it is an achievable goal, with enormous moral and political payoffs. How the United States leads and uses its influence in a crisis of massive proportions will become a defining feature of the U.S. position in the region for the next generation. To succeed, the administration will need to articulate and execute a vision for assisting, protecting and finding solutions for refugees in the immediate and longer term, supporting Syria’s neighbors and working with the range of stakeholders — leading as only the United States can.

A Human Rights First delegation traveled to Jordan and Turkey in late October and early November to assess the problems facing refugees from Syria. In Jordan and Turkey, we interviewed more than 60 refugees, humanitarian workers, and government officials. This report contains our findings and outlines steps the U.S. government should take to help address this crisis.

Many refugees have been turned back at the border in violation of international law. Neighboring states are imposing bans, restrictions, closures, and quotas that are leaving many people trapped in Syria or forced to attempt perilous escapes. We met with refugees who had been prevented from crossing at their first attempt or whose family members had been turned away. Turkey first restricted entry in August 2012 and in June this year, Jordan followed suit. Lebanon too is instituting stricter documentation requirements for Syrian refugees. Iraq and Egypt, which host lesser numbers, have also restricted their borders or otherwise made it harder for refugees to enter.

  • Jordan. Single men face particular difficulty trying to enter, and in some cases families have also been denied. For example, in October at the Jabir border post, authorities turned away a woman and her five year-old daughter. Jordan has denied entry to hundreds of Palestinian refugees from Syria and does not allow Iraqis to enter from Syria, including some at risk due to their work with the U.S. military or other American entities. Many people blocked by Jordan have been told that they would have to wait a month or forty days before trying to enter. In one such case at the Nasib crossing, forty people — including an elderly woman — were sent back to Damascus on a bus.
  • Turkey. Border officials have turned fleeing Syrians away when the camps are full and have required refugees to have documents to enter — a violation of international protection standards. Some of those blocked by Turkey are now stranded in camps on the Syria side of the border, which provide meager humanitarian assistance and have been hit by airstrikes.

While both governments continue to allow many refugees to enter and have publicly pledged that borders are open to refugees fleeing the conflict. These kinds of restrictions, bans, and rejections at the border are denying refuge to many who are entitled to protection under international law. The countries that border Syria have legitimate security concerns, but they can address these through individualized assessments conducted in accordance with international law. Blanket or random denials of entry violate the Refugee Convention and international law prohibitions against return. Drafted in the wake of World War II and in the context of the many border restrictions that denied refuge to those fleeing Nazi persecution, the Convention prohibits states from refoulement — returning people to places where their lives or freedom would be at risk.

The basic needs of many refugees are not being met. Despite the generosity of Syria’s neighbors, and the support of the United States and other donor countries, many Syrian refugees are struggling to survive. For Syria’s neighbors, it is a gigantic logistical and political challenge to provide humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of people. The influx has strained the infrastructures and services of some communities, which are struggling to provide medical care, education, electricity, sewage, and waste removal, and the needs of refugees are only becoming more acute with the onset of winter. While the United States and other countries have supported the relief effort, the U.N. refugee appeal continues to lag, with only 63% of requested funds collected. The suffering is widespread, but two subsets of refugees are in particular need: those living outside the official camps and children.

  • Refugees living outside the official camps endure the worst hardship. We visited a home in Amman where about 40 Syrians lived in three rooms. In Turkey, where the official camps generally have appropriate conditions, there is scarce help for refugees who live elsewhere and no systematic effort to identify the most vulnerable. We visited a makeshift camp where a family of seven lived in a tiny tent patched together from plastic, sack material, and linen sheets held up by wire strung from tree branches. Their tent, like half the tents in the camp, sits at the bottom of a slope. Water and mud, along with mice and frogs, flow in when it rains. The families here lack access to food, electricity, toilets, and running water.
  • Hundreds of thousands of children have fled Syria after enduring horrific violence only to face further suffering in their host countries. Many lack basic necessities; some live in squalor. An alarming number aren’t attending school due to lack of access or inability to pay for supplies and fees. And because refugees aren’t allowed to work — and adults risk detention if they do — many children are working to support their families rather than attending school.

The United States has played a lead role in addressing this crisis, providing $1.3 billion toward relief efforts both inside Syria and in neighboring countries. This effort reflects both U.S. leadership on humanitarian relief and its strategic interest in preventing the region from becoming destabilized.

The U.S. government can and should do more. Perhaps most notably, the United States should do more to champion the protection of refugees trying to flee from Syria. The United States has moreover not launched — or taken key steps to prepare for — a significant resettlement initiative that would demonstrate to Syria’s neighbors a real commitment to share in hosting at least some of Syria’s refugees and would encourage other resettlement states to follow suit. Nor has it addressed some of the impediments relating to admissibility under U.S. immigration law that could deny U.S. protection to some of the very refugees of particular concern to the United States. Unless swift action is taken, the United States will exclude from its protection anyone who assisted opposition groups, even those whose military efforts the U.S. government supports, against a regime it has repeatedly condemned.

The recommendations outlined in this report will help prevent this crisis from spiraling into a greater regional catastrophe. Greater targeted assistance to refugee-hosting communities and meaningful resettlement initiatives will help to preserve the stability of Syria’s neighbors. The future of Syria will be much bleaker if many of its children are denied education, and its adults are barred from working to support their families. And respect for human rights throughout the region will be undermined without strong leadership in the face of border restrictions that lead some who are fleeing persecution and violence to be turned away. By standing up for Syria’s civilians, the United States can send a strong message that respecting human rights is the best hope for stability and a better future.


Because of its range of relationships with political, military, and civil society leaders in the region, the United States is uniquely situated to help address these challenges. Indeed, it must lead to guard against instability, secure respect for human rights, alleviate suffering, and save lives:

Press parties to participate in peace talks and provide humanitarian access in Syria.     

  • Continue to encourage all parties to participate in the Geneva II peace talks.
  • Continue to press for a UN Security Council resolution allowing for cross border delivery of aid and press parties to agree to ceasefires to allow for delivery.
  • USAID and the State Department should encourage strengthened coordination by aid groups and local NGOs of assistance for displaced Syrians living in IDP camps along the Turkish border.

Champion protection for those fleeing persecution and conflict.

  • Press states to lift barriers to protection. U.S. officials, including President Obama and Secretary Kerry, and Members of Congress should urge all states to end any bans, prohibitions, closures, entry quotas, and restrictions that are inconsistent with international human rights and refugee protection standards.
  • Compile weekly reports on the border situation: U.S. Embassies should compile weekly reports on the ability of refugees to cross from Syria based on information from Jordanian and Turkish government counterparts, humanitarian partners and U.S. government sources, including information on the numbers denied entry and the reasons they were turned away. U.S. officials should raise reports of restrictions, bans, closures, delays, and denials of entry with Jordanian and Turkish government counterparts.
  • Step up support to refugee-hosting states. The United States and other countries should increase support for refugee-hosting states through development assistance, bilateral aid, and increased funding of UN humanitarian appeals.
  • Support meaningful border monitoring. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) should encourage and support human rights and refugee protection monitoring at borders and at airports by UNHCR and independent human rights monitors. PRM should encourage UNHCR to include questions on access at the border in its registration for new arrivals and to raise restrictions on access directly with refugee-hosting states as well as publicly.

Step up support for protection of refugees, addressing acute needs outside camps.

  • Strengthen support for refugees outside camps: The United States should provide additional funding for urban refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, prioritizing cash assistance, shelter, and education as well as protection monitoring and advocacy, and make assistance inclusive of marginalized and underserved groups. The U.S. Embassy in Turkey should encourage the Turkish government to develop protection-sensitive registration in urban areas to inform decisions on how to assist the most vulnerable.
  • Support host countries with bilateral aid to assist with costs associated with hosting refugees. The United States should support Jordan with increased bilateral aid, targeted to help refugee-hosting communities and needs, and work with other donors to provide bilateral aid to Turkey.
  • Increase support for host communities through development aid: US Embassies, USAID, and the State Department should continue to work with host governments and development actors to increase support for host communities addressing acute infrastructure needs that may be impacted by refugees, including education and medical care.
  • Encourage countries to make work authorization more accessible. This would reduce dependence on aid and allow refugees to contribute to the economy and retain skills for when return to Syria is possible.
  • Improve access to education: The United States should work with the government of Jordan and humanitarian partners to address bullying in schools, discrimination by school principals, and other obstacles to access. It should also encourage Turkey to waive residence requirements to register in Turkish schools, provide accreditation for schools teaching the Syrian curriculum, and support efforts to expand these schools. The United States should also support higher education initiatives.
  • Speak out against detention: The US should request regular updates from UNHCR and NGO partners regarding detention of Syrian, Iraqi and other refugees and raise concerns with host governments.

Lay groundwork for eventual returns and launch a meaningful resettlement initiative.

  • Lay groundwork for return. The United States should support efforts to make sure returns are voluntary and informed, and invest in programs preparing for eventual return movements, addressing issues of land, property rights, documentation, and reconstruction.
  • Launch a Meaningful Resettlement Initiative. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) –with support and leadership from the White House and security vetting agencies — should increase resettlement for Syrian refugees. Key steps are detailed in this report. This initiative should aim to resettle at least 15,000 refugees a year from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, depending on the evolving needs.
  • Proactively address unintended and unjust impediments to resettlement. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Justice should act now to implement their discretionary authority to grant exemptions from provisions of U.S. immigration law that treat any rebellion against any established government as “terrorist activity” and any assistance to such a rebellion as “material support” to terrorism.
  • Continue and improve resettlement of Iraqi and other refugees. The United States should continue to resettle Iraqi refugees and find ways to conduct U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services interviews with Iraqis trapped in Syria who are waiting to be resettled to the United States. Bringing them to safety should be a higher priority for the United States, which has a special responsibility to this population.

Published on November 21, 2013


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