As Syria stalemate continues, UN Security Council ponders options for protection of refugees and civilians
Contributed by Amali Tower, MA, Columbia University, who is currently working in refugee resettlement in Africa.
On 30 August 2012, the UN Security Council held a high-level meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, as well as foreign ministers from Jordan and Turkey, and ministers from Iraq and Lebanon, briefed the Council on the plight of affected civilians and the burgeoning refugee crisis in the region.
Guterres informed the Council that increased refugee flows had led 229,000 individuals to seek registration as refugees in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, with Turkey alone hosting more than 80,000 in camps and public buildings.
Eliasson, noting that the potential for conflict spillover and regional destabilisation was great, called upon the international community to engage in preventative action. In the meeting, Eliasson, as well as Council Members France and Guatemala, discussed a Turkey-proposed buffer zone inside Syria. Guatemala noted that this proposal raised a number of legal and practical questions, which the Council has yet to discuss.
Turkey has proposed that a buffer zone would relieve some of the burden on its resources and counter threats to its internal security. The proposal, however, raises a real challenge in that it will become necessary to counter Chinese and Russian views that the proposal is tantamount to foreign interference in the internal affairs of another State. It is possible that the Council will try to seize action on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis, but will likely continue to meet resistance from Russia and China, who have vetoed the three previous Council resolutions on the Syrian crisis.
From a practical point of view, the arguably failed UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) raises the question of which neutral international body or State could enjoy the support of the Council Members and is able and equipped to observe and implement such a proposed buffer zone. While Turkey has advanced the idea of a buffer zone, it has also indicated reluctance to ‘go it alone.’
Decrying that Turkey will soon reach its maximum capacity of 100,000 Syrian refugees within its borders, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked the Council to support a no-fly zone along the Turkey-Syria border, which would enable a safe haven to be established for refugees within the proposed buffer zone. France, which chaired the 30 August 2012 Council meeting, has indicated its support for a no-fly zone if refugee numbers continue to soar. While in Turkey last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also indicated that all options to resolve the Syrian crisis, including a no-fly zone, would be considered.
Within the proposed Syrian buffer zone, a protective foreign military operation on the ground would be the key addition to a no-fly zone, in order to safeguard civilians within Syria. However, a no-fly zone may not address all the concerns associated with securing camps in Syria, which run the risk of increasing potential clashes between foreign military personnel and Syrian military forces.
International calls for a no-fly zone may garner Council support, albeit less so from China, which has argued against interference ‘under the pretext of humanitarianism.’ However, analysts point out that an international coalition to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria may not require the support of the Council, as in the examples of the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq from 1991-2003.
Options for refugee protection
Since the 30 August Council meeting, UNHCR reported that Syrian refugee arrivals reached the record number of 100,000 new registrations in August. The refugee agency added that the total number of Syrian refugees who had either been registered or were awaiting registration now stood at 235,300. UNHCR stated the increased influx pointed to a ‘significant escalation in refugee movement and people seeking asylum.’
Recently, Turkey has begun taking measures to move refugees into camps and away from border regions. While these protection mechanisms are a step in the right direction, it is important to note that a political solution to the Syrian conflict is vital if a lasting response to the Syrian refugee crisis is to be found. Turkey is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. However, Turkey maintains the geographical limitations of the 1951 Convention, and therefore only grants asylum-seekers from Europe refugee status under Turkish law. This means that Syrian aliens in Turkey can never be afforded refugee status within Turkey’s borders.
Aliens who enter Turkey, whether legally with a passport or through illegal means, are required to register with the Turkish government almost immediately, are granted asylum-seeker status, and are afforded some minimal assistance. Asylum-seekers are then required to register with UNHCR, which conducts refugee-status determinations. For those granted refugee status, UNHCR must go on to advocate for’ basic asylum protections within Turkey or for relocation to third countries. The relocation process is one that accepts only limited numbers of refugees and which can take several years.
Recent developments indicate that the Turkish government is now prohibiting Syrians without passports from entering the country, while allowing those with passports to enter as tourists. This has raised concerns over the threat of refoulement, which has led Amnesty International to urge Turkey to implement measures against forcible return.
Elsewhere in the region, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, all of which are hosting Syrian refugees, are not party to the 1951 Convention. At best, then, UNHCR can ensure that Syrian refugees enjoy all the rights afforded them as asylum-seekers, and pursue either voluntary repatriation of refugees or resettlement to third countries when the time is appropriate.
With neighbouring countries indicating the possibility of closing their borders to continued refugee flows, a possible next step for the Security Council may be to engage in options for the protection of civilians trapped within Syria. On 11 August, the US and Turkey agreed to set up a working group to articulate a joint response to the crisis. It remains to be seen, however, whether this partnership will further plans for a buffer zone on a bilateral basis or whether the Council will overcome its political deadlock and finally take collective action towards a lasting solution to the Syrian crisis.