The UN refugee agency said Friday it was "greatly concerned" over reports that some European Union (EU) countries were placing barriers to entry or forcibly returning asylum-seekers, including people who have fled Syria.
"UNHCR is calling, globally as well as in the European Union, for a shift away from border protection to protection of people," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva. "If practices to prevent asylum-seekers from accessing territory and procedures are taking place, UNHCR calls on states to cease them immediately. Push-backs and prevention of entry can put asylum-seekers at further risk and expose them to additional trauma," he added.
In Bulgaria, UNHCR is seeking more information from the authorities on their reported activities at the border with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees into the country. Media reports say Bulgaria turned back 100 migrants at the border over the weekend and deployed some 1,200 police officers to the southern border region.
"Introducing barriers, like fences or other deterrents, may lead people to undertake more dangerous crossings and further place refugees at the mercy of smugglers," noted Edwards.
UNHCR is also concerned over similar reports of asylum-seekers being pushed back from Greece to Turkey. The agency has asked the Greek authorities to investigate the fate of 150 Syrian refugees, including many families with children, who were reported to have been denied entry in Evros on November 12.
Edwards said: "UNHCR received information, from villagers, of the group being detained and transported in police vehicles to an unknown location, although they have not been transferred to a reception centre. Their current whereabouts is unknown to us."
In Cyprus, UNHCR has received reports of Syrians being denied access in the northern part of the country. UNHCR continues to work with the government to ensure that Syrians have access to asylum procedures.
UNHCR is calling for a global moratorium on any return of Syrians to neighbouring countries. This would represent a concrete gesture of solidarity with these countries that currently host more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Turkey, which lies geographically in Europe and Asia, is hosting more than 500,000 registered refugees.
Returning Syrian refugees to Turkey or other neighbouring countries only adds to the challenges faced by these governments and local communities to support and provide assistance to refugees. Likewise, EU states with external borders cannot be left to shoulder this influx alone. EU responsibility-sharing needs to be demonstrated by greater intra-EU mobility and openness to genuine burden-sharing outside the existing mechanisms.
UNHCR believes that people found to be in need of international protection should have access to lasting solutions. This could include mechanisms for an equitable distribution of those recognized as refugees or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection within the EU. It could also be evacuation to a designated Evacuation Transit Centre based on existing models from where resettlement efforts could be undertaken both to European countries and non-European countries.
In addition, UNHCR welcomes the discretion exercised by some EU countries not to return all those requesting international protection to their first point of entry in the EU and appeals to others to follow suit, in an effort to demonstrate a measure of solidarity with these EU border countries. UNHCR also calls for the application of all the "Dublin" criteria, including those designed to unite families.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR concerned at reports that asylum seekers, including Syrians, denied entry to some EU countries, 15 November 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/528615d54.html