Fortress Europe: Syrian refugee shame exposed

European leaders should hang their heads in shame over the pitifully low numbers

of refugees from Syria they are prepared to resettle, said Amnesty International. 

In a briefing published today, An international failure: The Syrian refugee crisis

the organization details how European Union (EU) member states have only 

offered to open their doors to around 12,000 of the most vulnerable refugees 

from Syria: just 0.5 per cent of the 2.3 million people who have fled the country. 

“The EU has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the 

refugees who have lost all but their lives. The number of those it’s prepared to 

resettle is truly pitiful. Across the board European leaders should hang their heads

in shame,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

The closest European capital – Nicosia – lies a mere 200 miles from Damascus. Yet

collectively, EU member states have pledged to resettle just a very small 

proportion of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees. Amnesty International’s briefing 

breaks down the figures.

• Only 10 EU member states offered resettlement or humanitarian admission 

places to refugees from Syria. 

• Germany is by far the most generous – pledging to take 10,000 refugees or 80 

per cent of total EU pledges.

• Excluding Germany, the remaining 27 EU member states have offered to take a 

mere 2,340 refugees from Syria.

• France offered just 500 places or 0.02 per cent of the total number of people 

who have fled Syria.

• Spain agreed to take just 30 or 0.001 per cent of refugees from Syria.

• Eighteen EU member states – including the UK and Italy – offered no places at all.

As winter approaches, conditions for the 2.2 million people who have fled Syria to 

neighbouring countries are deteriorating rapidly. 

With only 12,000 places offered by EU member states for resettlement or 

humanitarian admission, others attempt the journey under their own steam. Tens 

of thousands have reached Europe trying to claim asylum having risked life and 

limb in arduous journeys, on boats or across land.

Amnesty International’s research reveals that first they have to break through the

barricades of Fortress Europe. Many are faced with violent push-backs by police 

and coastguards, or detained for weeks in deplorable conditions.

The journey to Italy by sea

Hundreds of people die attempting to cross the Mediterranean every year. In 

October it is estimated that as many as 650 refugees and migrants died when 

three boats sank attempting to reach Europe from North Africa. 

More than 10,000 refugees from Syria are reported to have arrived along Italy’s 

coast in the first 10 months of this year.

Amnesty International’s briefing gives first-hand accounts of those who have 

attempted to reach Europe by sea.

Awad, a 17-year-old boy from Damascus, described how he managed to escape 

through a window of a sinking boat and swim to the surface. There were 

reportedly 400 people on board. He saw people clinging to dead bodies and boat 

wreckage to stay afloat, while others fought over life jackets. Awad lost his 

mother as well as other family members. 

“I have no idea where my family are… I used to have ambition but now I have lost

my mother, I don’t want anything, I just want stability, everything else is second

to that.”

Another boy from Syria lost both his father and nine-year-old brother in the 


“My experience didn’t just destroy my dreams; it destroyed my family’s dreams. I 

am destroyed completely.” 

Fortress Europe 

In two of the main gateways to the EU, Bulgaria and Greece, refugees from Syria 

are met with deplorable treatment, including life threatening push-back 

operations along the Greek coast, and detention for weeks in poor conditions in 


Greece: pushed back into the sea

Refugees have told Amnesty International how Greek police or coastguards, 

wielding guns and wearing full face hoods, ill-treat them, strip them of their 

belongings and eventually push them back to Turkey.

A 32 year-old man from Syria described how he and his mother were confronted 

by the Greek coastguard near the island of Samos in October. They were part of a 

group of 35 people including women and young children pushed back to Turkey. 

“They put all the men lying on the boat; they stepped on us and hit us with their 

weapons for three hours. Then at around 10 in the morning, after removing the 

motor, they put us back to our plastic boat and drove us back to the Turkish 

waters and left us in the middle of the sea.’’

The number of unlawful push-back operations from Greece is not known; 

however, Amnesty International believes hundreds have been affected.

In the last two years the European Commission has provided €228 million to 

bolster border controls. 

In comparison, for the same time period, just €12 million was allocated to Greece 

under the European Refugee Fund, which supports efforts in receiving refugees.

Bulgaria: detained and contained

In Bulgaria, an estimated 5,000 refugees from Syria arrived between January and 

November 2013. The majority are housed in emergency centres, the largest of 

which is in the town of Harmanli. It is effectively a closed detention centre. 

Amnesty International found refugees living in squalid conditions in containers, a 

dilapidated building and in tents. There was a lack of adequate sanitary facilities 

with limited access to food, bedding or medicine. 

A large number of people were in need of medical care, including some injured in 

conflict, individuals suffering chronic diseases and those with mental health 


Some of the refugees in Harmanli told Amnesty International that they had been 

detained for over a month. 

“Tens of thousands are risking perilous journeys by boat or land to try and reach 

Europe. We have seen hundreds lose their lives in the Mediterranean. It is 

deplorable that many of those that who have risked life and limb to get here, are 

either forced back or detained in truly squalid conditions with insufficient food, 

water or medical care,” said Salil Shetty.

Europe must act

“The platitudes of Europe’s leaders ring hollow in the face of the evidence,” said 

Salil Shetty. “The EU must open its borders, provide safe passage, and halt these 

deplorable human rights violations.” 

Just 55,000 Syrian refugees (2.4 per cent of the total number of people who have 

fled Syria) have managed to get through and claim asylum in the EU. 

For those who manage to break through the barricades of Fortress Europe, many 

head for Sweden or Germany, which have offered the most help to asylum 

seekers. In the two years to the end of October 2013, Sweden has received 

20,490 new Syrian asylum applications and Germany received 16,100 such 

applications. Less than 1,000 people have claimed asylum in each of Greece, Italy

and Cyprus.

Amnesty International is calling on European member states to:

• Significantly increase the number of resettlement and humanitarian admission 

places for refugees from Syria;

• Strengthen search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to identify boats in 

distress and assist those on board;

• Ensure that those rescued are treated with dignity and have access to asylum 


• Ensure that unlawful push-back operations are ended;

• Provide legal safe passage for Syrian asylum seekers wishing to travel to 

European member states.

• The EU, its member states, and the international community should continue to 

provide support to countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees, particularly 

Jordan and Lebanon. 

Background information

The bulk of the 2.3 million refugees – 97 per cent – have fled to five neighbouring 

countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The arrival of refugees from 

Syria in Lebanon has increased the country’s population by nearly 20%. 

Since July 2013, Amnesty International has conducted field research missions 

looking at the situations of refugees in, among other countries, Bulgaria, Egypt, 

Greece, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Turkey.