In mid-June, an overloaded fishing vessel, Adriana, sank with at least 700 people on board while attempting to reach Italy. The ship was carrying Syrian, Palestinian, and Afghan refugees, as well as Egyptian and Pakistani migrants. The Adriana disaster is the largest and deadliest such incident since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis. But it will not be the last.

The Syrian war entered its 13th year this past spring, and it remains the largest refugee crisis in the world. There are currently over 5.34 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), dispersed in camps, collective shelters, and poor neighborhoods across Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt.

UNHCR has identified 777,000 Syrians requiring resettlement — larger than any other refugee population. Resettlement remains a critical test of responsibility sharing by the international community. However, only a fraction of eligible displaced Syrians have been resettled to third countries over the past five years. The rest face impossible choices: return to an uncertain and potentially deadly fate in Syria, remain in refugee camps and the certainty of poverty and discrimination, or attempt the dangerous journey to Europe.

On June 15, after Adriana sank, the European Union organized the Seventh Brussels Conference for Syria. International donors pledged more than €5.6 billion ($6.1 billion) to support Syrian refugees and the host communities. However, there has been a consistent funding shortfall that mirrors the gap in resettlement. At the height of the crisis in 2015, UNHCR reported a $3.47 billion funding gap. Six years later, the agency stated that only 39% of its Syria-related operations were funded. The available money is distributed through fragile aid systems that only meet refugees’ basic needs.

From host to hostility

This inadequate support comes amid growing anti-refugee rhetoric and sentiments in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The increasing hostility of host communities has fueled migration attempts. Donor countries prefer to address the situation financially, while disregarding international refugee protection standards and their responsibilities under international law. However, this will not deter refugees from seeking asylum.

As part of its broader anti-immigration policies, the former Trump administration targeted refugees and asylum seekers looking to enter the United States. Although the policies were widely criticized at the time, they were not abandoned by President Joe Biden and have been adopted by other countries as well.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has similarly prioritized a more restrictive migration policy. “If you come to [the United Kingdom] illegally, you will not be able to stay, you will be detained,” the government declared last March, as it introduced a draft law stripping individuals of the right to asylum and residence in the U.K. The draft law also legalized their detention and deportation to a third country, preventing asylum seekers from appealing their deportation, including Syrian refugees. After Sunak’s plan was rejected by the courts, his government obtained parliamentary approval for a new law. Both the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi have strongly objected to the proposed law. Anti-refugee policies are not limited to the United States and Europe, however.

Although Turkey initially welcomed Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war, hostility has grown over the past two years. Refugees are blamed for Turkey’s economic woes and were an issue in the May 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections. Slogans adopted by the Turkish opposition included “The time has come for the refugees to start packing their bags” as well as “Syrians will leave!” Opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promised to “return all Syrian refugees to their homes.” Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also used the issue to whip up electoral support. However, his speeches employed softer language and spoke of a “voluntary” return of Syrian refugees.

Following his election victory, Erdoğan appears to be implementing this approach. In mid-July, 170 Syrian refugees were deported to areas in northern Syria through the Tal Abyad border. The refugees were pressured to sign papers stating that they had returned to Syria “voluntarily.” Erdoğan has also obtained funding from Qatar to build housing units for the returning refugees in northern Syria.

Lebanon, too, is a reluctant host to Syrian refugees. The popular hostility is manifested in the daily political discourse, local regulations, and the media, which have grown more virulent since the country’s economic collapse. The government of Lebanon has used the Syrian refugee crises to distract attention from the political instability in the country and governmental corruption. To avoid criticism for failing to fix the Lebanon’s dire economic problems, politicians claimed the refugees were draining the country’s resources. However, Lebanon’s political and economic issues are systemic and pre-date the Syrian refugee crisis as do examples of discriminatory policies toward other refugee groups and minorities.

Lebanese politicians have blamed the international community for not doing enough to help Lebanon, with some justification. But meanwhile, Lebanon’s government has diverted some of the funds intended for refugees with no consequences. By July 2023, the UNHCR in Lebanon reported a 70% funding gap. The insufficient funding has contributed to the reduction of programs and an increase in poverty rates among refugees. Finally, the Lebanese army has deported thousands of Syrian refugees to date, including unaccompanied children. Although the military has justified the deportations on security grounds, they have been implemented without respecting legal procedures and ignoring fears that the deportees will face renewed persecution back home.

Deadly crossing

The U.S. and Italy have provided the Lebanese naval forces with equipment to help deter migration. However, the navy has also been involved in several deadly incidents off the Lebanese coast. In April 2022, a boat carrying migrants sank off the coast of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. At least 40 were killed, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees. The survivors claimed that the boat was rammed by Lebanese naval vessels to force its return, but the navy blamed the smugglers for the tragedy. Eight months later, in December 2022, a boat carrying more than 230 refugees and displaced persons, most of them from Syria, sank hours after it set off from Tripoli. Although most of the passengers were rescued, a woman and a child drowned.

These calamities at sea have become routine over the past decade. Since 2014, more than 27,000 people have died or gone missing while traversing Mediterranean waters. In 2022 alone, the International Organization for Migration documented more than 3,700 drowning incidents of migrants and refugees, 2,257 during attempts to cross the Mediterranean. And 2023 is on track to be even deadlier; as of the beginning of this year, 2,420 are deemed missing or dead, some whose identities are still unknown.

Crossing the Mediterranean Sea is often the only option for many refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). During the last 10 years, only 2 million refugees of various nationalities benefitted from UNHCR’s resettlement program. The U.N. agency estimates that there will be over 2 million open resettlement cases this year, an acceleration of the upward trend from the past two years. Roughly a quarter of the cases are refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. After failing to obtain entry visas or resettlement through the UNHCR, refugees and IDPs seek out smugglers.

Khaled A. is a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmouk Camp near Damascus. He became a refugee for the second time after he fled Syria in 2012 and is currently living with his wife in the Beddawi camp for Palestinian refugees in northern Lebanon. Khaled’s adult children relied on smugglers to reach Europe by sea and were eventually granted asylum in Belgium. Khaled tried to obtain an entry visa to Belgium to reunite his family. However, his request was rejected. Despite the danger, Khaled believes the sea route may be the only way to see his children again.

Unequal treatment

In contrast to the treatment of refugees and IDPs from MENA, Europe has welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms. After Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion, the EU activated the Temporary Protection Directive to provide immediate protection for Ukrainians displaced by the conflict. Nearly 4 million Ukrainians benefitted from instant access to the EU’s labor market, along with social welfare, housing, and other forms of government support, including health care and education. However, these same European countries have only opened their borders to a small number of Syrians fleeing war and violence in their country.

In 2016, the Danish parliament passed legislation that required asylum seekers to hand over any valuable assets worth more than $1,450. Lawmakers claimed that asylum seekers needed to contribute toward the expenses of their stay. Five years later, a new law was passed allowing the authorities to deport asylum seekers to countries outside Europe. The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a memorandum of understanding on asylum and migration with Rwanda. This agreement permits Denmark to transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda regardless of their nationality. Although these policies have not been applied to Ukrainian refugees, they have inspired other governments, including that of the U.K., to pursue similar international arrangements.

Denmark’s anti-immigrant politics expanded even further after the far-right Social Democratic Party came to power in 2022. Four months later, in March 2023, the Danish Immigration Service announced that it was safe for Syrian refugees from four areas in Syria to return. Human Rights Watch criticized the government’s decision, and it is currently being challenged in the Danish courts.

The EU has signed agreements with most countries in Africa and the Middle East in order to deter immigration to Europe. Last month, Tunisia signed an agreement with the EU worth over €1 billion, with approximately 10% allocated for combatting smuggling and border management. Tunisia, like other countries of the Mediterranean basin, subjects refugees and migrants to forced return, a policy often accompanied by violence. Instead of ensuring safe and legal avenues for refugees and IDPs, the EU has effectively endorsed repressive policies that violate the 1951 Refugee Convention and existing human rights standards.

Unless there is a resolution to the Syrian conflict or a sustainable solution for the protracted refugee situation is found, these measures are unlikely to deter desperate individuals from seeking a safe haven or prevent smugglers from profiting off of their misery. While many European governments view refugees as a hostile invading force, they have enabled or failed to prevent the devastation that forced millions to flee their homes. Instead of adopting repressive measures and discrimination, the EU needs to work with regional partners and non-governmental organizations to limit the danger to refugees and IDPs. The U.S. and its European allies should be strengthening international protections and human rights standards, not undermining them directly or through agreements with corrupt governments. At the bottom of the Mediterranean, Adriana is yet another tragic reminder of the global failure to protect refugees and resolve the conflicts that created them.


Dalal Yassine is the Executive Director of Middle East Voices, a lawyer and advocate for gender and human rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI.

Photo by Ali Hashisho/Xinhua via Getty Images

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