Last week one of Human Rights First’s senior researchers was in Turkey, meeting with human rights defenders in Gaziantep, near the Syria border. Again and again he heard reports that the border was still largely closed to Syrians, leaving them stranded in danger—in violation of the fundamental international law tenets that safeguard the right of refugees to cross borders.
As the Wall Street Journal reported a few days ago, ISIS militants took control of several camps in Syria near the border, forcing many to flee for their lives. Human Rights Watch reports that Turkish border guards shot at Syrians who tried to flee across the border to safety in Turkey.
In the wake of World War II, the United States helped draft the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees so that refugees would never again be abandoned in the face of persecution. The Convention and the international law that has developed since make clear that refugees should not be prevented from escaping their countries. Yet, as detailed in Human Rights First’s recent report The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Need for U.S. Leadership, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon—faced with large numbers of Syrian refugees and insufficient international support through aid and resettlement—are now largely blocking Syrians from fleeing their country despite the bombings, terror, and violence forcing them to run.
The United States must press Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to allow refugees to cross their borders to access international protection, and it must lead a global initiative to provide greater support to these frontline refugee hosting states, working closely with European, Gulf, and other allies. As outlined in our recent report, such an initiative must include increased development investment, humanitarian assistance, and substantially increased resettlement.
The Pope, after volunteering to take three Syrian families back to the Vatican from the Greek Island of Lesbos, told journalists traveling on his plane from Greece that all nations have the responsibility of welcoming refugees. “I have always said that building walls is not a solution,” he said, according to CNN. “We saw walls during the last century and they did not resolve anything. We must build bridges.”
CNN also reported that U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi praised the pope’s gesture, calling it “a powerful demonstration of solidarity. It must inspire governments and societies in a world where the desperate plight of record numbers of forcibly displaced is too often met by barriers, rejection and fear.”
The United States should lead by example, which will increase its leverage as it encourages other states to do more. A recent Washington Post editorial called on the United States to increase its resettlement of Syrian refugees, a move that advances U.S. national security as well as humanitarian interests.
In September, the Obama Administration will host a summit in New York focused on the global refugee crisis. In advance of the summit, the United States will ask states to pledge increases in aid, resettlement, and measures to improve access to jobs and education. These are crucial steps, but they are not the only essential commitments.
If the international community continues to abandon the central protections of international human rights and refugee law—like allowing refugees to cross borders—the repercussions will be devastating and lasting. The many nations that have not done their fair share to support frontline states through resettlement and aid, or have set poor examples at their own borders, or have pressed for sealed borders regardless of access for refugees, will all be complicit in the tragedies and loss of life that will ensue.
Rules are made so that they are followed at the times when they are needed most. This is such a time. The United States must champion the right of refugees to cross borders, and call on European allies, as well as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and other states to comply with international law.