SNHR Calls on the Greek Authorities and the UNHCR to Launch an Investigation Into the Causes of the Sinking of the Boat Carrying Asylum Seekers that Was Heading for Greece, Which Resulted in the Death of 37 Syrians
The Hague – The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) released today a statement, marking World Refugee Days, in which the group stressed that Syria is unsafe, as the return of millions of refugees hinges on realizing a democratic political change. Moreover, SNHR called on the Greek authorities and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to launch an investigation into the causes of the sinking of the boat carrying asylum seekers that was heading for Greece, which resulted in the death of 37 Syrians.
The Violations by the Syrian Regime and Other Parties to the Conflict Are the Main Reason Behind Millions of Syrians Seeking Asylum
The statement notes that the violations by the Syrian regime and the other parties to the conflict have led to the displacement of half the Syrian people, who either became internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees in other countries worldwide, while tens of thousands more are seeking asylum in other countries in light of the continued violations and, even worse, of other states restoring relations with the very same party committing these violations, which has eradicated any prospect of displaced Syrians being able to return to Syria anytime soon. The statement stresses that the ongoing violations by the various parties to the conflict and controlling forces in Syria are the primary cause of more and more refugees fleeing. While It may be true that the rate of violations has fallen somewhat in the past two years, the cumulative effect of 12 years and counting of violations has brought about a Syria with an atrocious human rights situation, riven by killings, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, forced displacement, torture, pillaging of land and properties, and a widespread state of chronic insecurity under which assassinations and remote bombings have become prevalent, with these and many other violations combining to cause upheaval across Syria. In light of these violations that threaten the very fundamental tenets of human rights and human dignity, with no foreseeable end to this suffering or any feasible way to hold their perpetrators accountable, hundreds of Syrians are trying to sell their properties, flee their country, and seek asylum in nations worldwide.
The statement recorded the death of 37 Syrians, including seven women, who were mostly from Daraa governorate. The victims drowned to death after a fishing boat, which was carrying them along other asylum seekers from different nationalities including Egyptians, Palestinians, and Pakistanis, capsized and sank on June 14, 2023, south of Greece, approximately 47 nautical miles of the coasts of Pylos. The vessel, which carried 700-750 asylum seekers, including women and children, according to estimates, launched off the Libyan coasts towards Europe on the morning of Friday, June 9, 2023. As the statement further reveals, the boat sent out its first distress call on the morning of Tuesday, June 13, while the Greek Coast Guard announced it launched a wide search and rescue operation on the morning of June 14 after the boat had sank. Meanwhile, the UNHCR and the International Orgnaization for Migration stressed that search and rescue at sea is a “legal and humanitarian imperative.”
The statement condemns the slow response to the distress call, and calls on the Greek government and the UNHCR to launch an investigation into this incident and make its findings available to the public and the families of the victims, hold those responsible accountable, and compensate the victims.
Refoulment of Refugees and Forced Repatriation of Asylum Seekers Constitute Violations of International Law
As the statement further reveals, no government in the world has the right to assess the situation in Syria and then make the decision to deport Syrian refugees back to Syria based on such an assessment. This task, namely assessing the situation in Syria, is the responsibility of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI), the international human rights organizations, and of active local human rights organizations working to document violations in Syria, such as SNHR. All these entities have confirmed that Syria is unsafe.
The statement reveals that, from the start of 2014 until June 2023, SNHR documented no fewer than 3,367 arbitrary arrests against refugees returning to their homes in Syria from countries of asylum or residence, with the victims including 246 children and 212 women (adult female), and with all these individuals being detained by Syrian regime forces. Today, a total of 2,094 of these people have been released, while 1,273 are still detained, including 923 people who have subsequently been categorized as cases of enforced disappearance. The statement also documents no fewer than 74 cases of sexual violence against returning refugees during the same period.
Moreover, the statement underscores that readmitting the Syrian regime into the Arab League does not mean that Syria is in any way safe for the return of refugees since the regime is still committing crimes against humanity. SNHR is seriously concerned that any restoration of relations with the Syrian regime may lead to Syrian refugees being forced to return to Syria; indeed, as of this writing, SNHR has already recorded the refoulment of no fewer than 874 Syrian refugees from Lebanon since the beginning of April 2023, including 86 women and 104 children. Of these, we have recorded the arrest of 87 individuals, including two children, five women, and two members of the same family, at the hands of the Syrian regime’s Military Intelligence forces in the al-Masna border area.
The statement further stresses that the refoulment of refugees and the forced repatriation of Syrian refugees constitute blatant violations of customary international law. Any governments carrying out such practices bear legal responsibility for any torture, killing, enforced disappearance, and other violations potentially perpetrated by the Syrian regime against forced returnees, in addition, of course, to the Syrian regime’s direct responsibility for these violations.
The statement calls on the governments of states hosting Syrian refugees, especially neighboring countries which house the largest proportion of refugees, to stop their constant threats against these refugees of deportation back to Syria, which only causes further anxiety amongst already traumatized refugees, threatens their material stability, and hinders the processes of social integration.