The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) makes clear the right of every human being to seek safety in another country. But eight years into the Syrian conflict, this most basic of human rights barely matters because there is so little leeway for people to leave Syrian territory in the first place. Being a refugee or asylum seeker in another country is an enormously difficult challenge, mostly undertaken by those who feel they have no other choice for survival. To deny people in danger this last resort is to deny their humanity.
The Assad regime’s ongoing assault on Dera’a—in an internationally-declared safe zone, absurdly enough—has forced more than one hundred thousand civilians to flee. Most of them are moving south toward the border with Jordan, even as Jordan declines to open that border to those seeking safety from the violence. Citing the large number of Syrian refugees it already hosts, Jordan has said that protection for this latest group of internally displaced people (IDPs) must happen inside Syria.
In light of this situation, it’s hard not to think of Rukban, the border crossing between Syria and far eastern Jordan, where tens of thousands fled into a no-man’s land in 2014. At its largest, Rukban was home to about 85,000 people. Fifty thousand continue to languish there, with aid deliveries sometimes happening as seldom as every few months. The government of Jordan says the camp is a security risk. Accordingly, it’s rare that even people with extreme protection needs are allowed to enter.
Similarly, along the border with Turkey, hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians are stuck in camps—some since the earliest days of the conflict. The aid delivery processes here have evolved over the course of the crisis, but the camps remain overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe. There have been credible reports of Turkish border guards shooting at people who try to cross. At the beginning of this year when Turkey began Operation Olive Branch to take Afrin, Turkey made clear its intention to open more camps inside Syria rather than open its border to people fleeing the assault.
Lebanon is not only declining to host more Syrians; it is proactively discussing sending them back to Syria in spite of repeated warnings from humanitarians that it is much too early and still unsafe.
Syria’s neighbors effectively closed their borders to fleeing Syrians years ago, and while there was initially an international outcry, the world has gradually come to accept that these countries will now be off-limits for those trying to escape the Assad regime and a variety of other armed groups. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are shouldering an incredible amount of work and responsibility, and they are fully justified in continuing to demand that the rest of the world help them. But contrary to earlier years, the world’s efforts to share the responsibility for Syrian refugees’ well-being rarely include public demands for open borders anymore.
At the same time, more countries are declining to accept and resettle Syrians, pointing out that they instead continue to provide humanitarian assistance in both the country and the region. As valuable as this assistance is, it is not a substitute for physical safety from a war zone. The hundreds of people killed during airstrikes in Dera’a this week don’t need humanitarian aid today; they needed to get out of the conflict zone days ago, and now it is too late. Their right to seek asylum was moot from the beginning, as is true for the six and a half million other IDPs in the country.
As the regime gains more and more territory in Syria, more and more civilians will inevitably have to abandon their homes. If they cannot exit Syria, they will be stuck in a country where the government and its opponents have shown virtually no concern for their lives. Do we expect things to go well for them after that? All the humanitarian aid in the world cannot solve that problem.
If the international community truly wants to help Syrians, it must insist that Syria’s neighbors open their borders, and it needs to offer financial, technical and humanitarian assistance now to make that happen. There is no time to waste. Humanitarian aid and implementation of the principles that govern it may always be under discussion, but human rights are conferred solely on the fact that a creature is human. Syrians indisputably have the right to seek asylum, and it is up to all of us to make that right meaningful.
RI Senior Advocate Daryl Grisgraber traveled to northeastern Syria in April 2018.