The Syrian refugee crisis appears to be an elephant in the room that many wealthy European countries have avoided addressing for nearly four years. However, with the ever-increasing number of refugees making their way onto European soil and the millions more in desperate need for resettlement, this pressing issue has become harder to ignore. The Syrian conflict has become one of the deadliest humanitarian catastrophes of our time, responsible for creating the world’s largest refugee crisis since the post World War II era.[1][2] In addition to the tens of thousands of civilian casualties, the UNHCR estimates that roughly half of the country’s pre-war population of 22 million are currently displaced and in need of acute humanitarian protection and assistance. Despite the severity of this situation, the international community’s efforts to come to the aid of Syrian refugees has been largely inadequate: Norway is particularly guilty on this front.

Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English, ©2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English, ©2009, some rights reserved.

More than 3.8 million Syrians have temporarily sought safe haven in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.[3] For countries that had already taken in thousands of Palestinians and Iraqis from previous conflicts, this added influx of approximately 95 per cent of all Syrian refugees, is pushing their overcrowded refugee camps and overstretched infrastructure to breaking point. These states are left with no other alternative than to implement stricter immigration rules and reinforce their borders; new visa requirements for Syrians to enter Lebanon being a case in point.

European countries are arguably in the best position to accommodate Syrian refugees. However, with the exception of Germany and Sweden, which together have accepted 64 per cent of Europe’s Syrian asylum applicants;[4] the rest of Europe has failed to do their part and admit a significant amount of refugees. The UNHCR has appealed to the international community to increase their quotas, as the 79,180 places available now fall short of the estimated 130 000 Syrians who will become displaced by 2016.[5] Sweden has been one of the leading asylum countries: granting permanent residency permits to 20 000 Syrians through its “open door policy” and extensive resettlement programmes, putting its close Scandinavian neighbour, Norway, to shame.

Norway, an oil-rich nation and a self-declared “humanitarian superpower”, took in a mere 1000 Syrians asylum seekers in 2014, and has pledged to double its resettlement quota in 2015.[6] Notwithstanding its generous donations of over £112 million in humanitarian aid to the war-torn region between 2011-2104, the Norwegian government has shirked from any further involvement. [7] International law, specifically the Dublin Regulation, has in effect ‘shielded’ Norway from its responsibility to take in those few Syrians that make it all the way to the Norwegian border in seek of protection.

Signed in 2003 by the EU and then extended to include Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Lichtenstein, the Dublin Regulation was originally designed to prevent abuse of the asylum system by refugees and states alike. On the one hand, asylum seekers are not allowed to have active asylum applications in more than one signatory country, until their request is fully processed. On the other, refugees are ensured a fair evaluation of their request for asylum, through a uniform procedure practiced by all abiding members, thus preventing states from passing refugees around within Europe without granting asylum.

The Dublin Regulation is the cornerstone of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), founded on the intention to foster close cooperation between its member states and shared responsibility for refugee protection in Europe. However, in reality, it has provided countries, such as Norway, a ‘free pass’, allowing them to deport asylum seekers back to their “first EU country of entry”, rather than entertaining their request for asylum. In the case of most Syrian refugees, they are sent back to the South-European states bordering the Mediterranean, such as Italy, Greece and Bulgaria. As a result of their geographical location, these states have been saddled with the permanent responsibility for the ever-growing mountain of asylum requests made by Syrians, amongst others, who have risked their life crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search for safety in Europe.

Like Norway, many wealthy nations have settled on providing donations of humanitarian aid, all while keeping their borders more or less closed. While assistance and aid on the ground is essential, the willingness to resettle those that have escaped the conflict remains just as crucial. This approach and unequal division of responsibility will not be sustainable in the long run; countries such as Norway will at some point have to contribute to sharing the burden of this pressing humanitarian disaster. States neighbouring Syria are overflowing with refugees, and due to the binding mandate of the Dublin Regulation, southern European countries, have also reached the saturation points for their ability to accommodate the continuous influx of Syrian refugees. As the Syrian conflict rages on, NGOs such as Amnesty International have been at the frontline of the battle trying to increase international effort to resettle larger numbers of refugees, with its newly released campaign #OpenToSyria. Their aim is to shame and encourage the international community into committing to increased level of responsibility towards displaced Syrians, as well as alleviating pressure from neighbouring and southern European countries.

While the Dublin Regulation provides the ‘option’ to deport refugees back to their first country of arrival in Europe, it does not in any way encourage or force the Norwegian government to do so. With this fact, as well as the scope and severity of this crisis in mind, it is time for Norway to stop using international law as a ‘shield’, and start acting like the nation built on common humanitarian values and morality that it claims to be.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/02/world/middleeast/syrian-civil-war-2014-deadliest-so-far.html?_r=0

[2] http://www.unhcr.org/53a155bc6.html

[3]http://www.amnesty.no/sites/default/files/94/4495_syria_report_web_final.pdf

[4] http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/facts-figures-syria-refugee-crisis-international-resettlement-2014-12-05

[5] http://www.unhcr.org/52b2febafc5.pdf

[6] http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/uriks/Amnesty-Ynkelig-a-ikke-ta-imot-syriske-flyktninger-7813261.html

[7] https://www.regjeringen.no/nb/aktuelt/syria_bidrag/id749267/