A Moral Compass: The Syrian Refugee Crisis In Focus

BY ELISE HAVERMAN – On Wednesday, September 2nd, the world woke up to the body of three-year old Alyan, washed up, facedown and lifeless on the shore of Turkey.[1] Alyan left on a boat with his family to flee Syria amidst a civil war in an effort to reach Greece.[2]  Heartbreaking photo’s of Alyan’s body flooded social media sites and caused a global reaction to the desperate attempts refugees take to find asylum throughout the European Union (“EU”). Those devastating images shed light into the severity of the refugee crisis. More than 2,600 people have died in their attempts to seek asylum in Europe this past year.[3]

United Nations (“UN”) is urging countries such as the United States, Germany, Hungary, and the United Kingdom to take in refugees in light of the overwhelming number of people fleeing Syria.[4] Antonio Guterres, the head of the UN Refugee Agency, stated that resolving this crisis is a “defining moment” for the EU.[5] Guterres emphasized that all EU countries must do their part because no country could afford to have one country shirk their responsibilities.[6]

The question is whether the countries should take refugees in and whether the countries are obligated to under international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that, “[e]veryone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”[7] The United Nations Protocol on Refugees of 1967 defines a refugee as any person who:

“[O]wing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” [8]

Under the basic principles of international law it seems likely that the Syrians fleeing the conflict of the growing Islamic state would fit the definition of refugees. Most flee because they have a well-founded fear of death from the on going civil war in Syria and threat of ISIS. Therefore, refugees should be granted some kind of asylum because of the binding effect of the Protocol on the parties.[9]

Countries who are parties to these treaties have a moral and binding obligation to assist. Sadly, not all countries have responded in a positive way. Fortunately, there are countries that have begun taking steps to aid refugees accepting their asylum. The United States has agreed to accept 33,000 refugees from the Middle East.[10] The United Kingdom expressed that they would accept thousands.[11] Shockingly, Germany’s Chancellor stated there was no legal limit to the amount of refugees they would take. [12]

Taking in large number of refugees is not as easy as just fulfilling a moral duty. There are many issues to take into account. Those issues include each nations’ policies on immigration, background checks, and other security measures. Some in the United States argue, “[t]aking in 65,000 Syrians, as the 14 senators had urged, is virtually impossible under the existing asylum process, which requires lengthy background checks.” [13] Countries, like Hungary, have had less than a generous approach to the issue. Their prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has recently sent the refugees to camps for registration or has sent the refugee trains north, denying refugees asylum.[14] On the other hand, countries like Germany have taken pledges to accept a large numbers of refugees, with estimated in the range 800,000.[15] The German chancellor explained that “[a]s a strong, economically healthy country [Germany} have the strength to do what is necessary and ensure every asylum seeker gets a fair hearing.”[16]

However, as a basic principle of humanitarianism and moral ethics, countries should help take refugees because of the serious threat of death and persecution they face in their home countries. The UN explained that when, “governments of their home countries no longer protect the basic rights of refugees, the international community then steps in to ensure that those basic rights are respected.” [17] Although the impact of thousands of refugees could have negative impacts on a country, denying all refuges asylum would be inhumane, especially if that nation is a party to a UN treaty or Protocol. With a communal response, a relief effort can be established to ensure Syrian refugees asylum and reduce the death tolls that occur as a result of deadly journeys.


[1] Rachel Clark and Catherine E. Shoichet, Image of 3-year-old who washed ashore underscores Europe’s refugee crisis, CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/02/europe/migration-crisis-boy-washed-ashore-in-turkey/ (last updated Sept. 3, 2015, 9:57 AM).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] UNHCR chief issues key guidelines for dealing with Europe’s refugee crisis, UNHCR (Sept. 4, 2015), http://www.unhcr.org/55e9793b6.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7]G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (Dec. 10, 1948) Art. 14(1).

[8] G.A. Res. 2198 (XXI), Convention and Protocol Relating To The Status of Refugees (Dec. 16, 1966) Art. 1(A)(2).

[9] Germany, Hungary, the USA, and UK are parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and/or the 1967 Protocol. See UNHCR, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol (last updated April 2015), http://www.unhcr.org/3b73b0d63.html.

[10]Lauren Gambino, US steps up Syrian refugee admissions but why are some still excluded?, The Guardian (Mar. 11, 2015, 4:08 PM), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/11/us-accept-thousands-syrian-refugees.

[11] Selina Sykes, Britain’s foreign aid will be used to house ‘thousands’ of refugees in UK, says Osborne,Express (Sept. 6, 2015, 12:09 PM), http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/603326/15-000-Syrian-refugees-David-Cameron-migration-crisis

[12] Germany: ‘No Limit’ To Refugees We’ll Take In, Sky News(Sept. 5, 2015, 7:54 PM), http://news.sky.com/story/1547326/germany-no-limit-to-refugees-well-take-in

[13] David M. Herszenhorn, Many Obstacles Are Seen to U.S. Taking in Large Number of Syrian Refugees, New York Times (Sept. 4, 2015),http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/05/us/many-obstacles-are-seen-to-us-taking-in-large-number-of-syrian-refugees.html.

[14] The Guardian view on Hungary and the refugee crisis: Orbán the awful, The Guardian (Sept. 6, 2015, 2:31 PM), http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/06/the-guardian-view-on-hungaryand-the-refugee-crisis-orban-the-awful.

[15] supra note 12, Germany: ‘No Limit’ To Refugees We’ll Take In.

[16] Id.

[17] UNHCR, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Refugee Protection: A Guide to International Refugee Law, http://www.unhcr.org/3d4aba564.html, at 10.

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