Forcing Syrian refugees to return home is no solution - Article by Chris Doyle in Arab News, 25 October 2021
The same question keeps getting asked and the same answer keeps coming back. Is it safe for the 5.5 million Syrian refugees languishing in neighboring countries to return home? It is a question that will not go away because of the scale of the challenge, given that, aside from the Palestinians, Syrian refugees form the largest refugee population in the world, spread over 127 countries.
The questions resurfaced after last week’s two-day visit to Syria by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and the publication of a major report by Human Rights Watch. This is also a time when the Syrian conflict is no longer so evident and media coverage is declining. Many areas of the country have not experienced overt war for some time. Moreover, host countries are getting fed up with the burden of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees at a time of economic distress, not least in Lebanon.
Grandi met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and the issue of the return of refugees was discussed. Grandi tweeted: “I have discussed with the Syrian government ways to strengthen coordination as we address internal displacement, and to cooperate in removing obstacles to the return of refugees.”
The UNHCR chief is well aware of the intricacies of refugee law and its requisite protections. Before taking on his current role, he had a stint as head of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to Palestinian refugees, including in Syria. His tweet might have been misguided, but it was not deleted, so one has to believe that Grandi understood how refugees would interpret his words and, indeed, how the Syrian regime and some of the refugee-hosting countries would too.
Grandi seemed to suggest there were bureaucratic or physical barriers blocking the refugees’ return, and that these could be removed with a few decisions. To be clear, the formal position of the UNHCR is that Syria is not yet safe. However, it has stated that it will support those who wish to return voluntarily.
Turn, then, to the new HRW report, entitled “Our Lives Are Like Death,” which carefully explains why refugees do not feel safe to return and gives evidence on what has happened to many of those who dared to go back. The report is based on interviews with 65 refugees or their family members after the exiles returned to Syria from Jordan or Lebanon. It reflects similar findings to an Amnesty International report published last month.
All the evidence shows that the obstacle is the regime itself. One wonders what Grandi was thinking with his tweet, but it would require a wholesale change in the regime’s behavior that is not in its DNA.
First, all Syrians who left over the last decade are suspect in the eyes of the regime. Their loyalty remains under question. Hence, the Syrian authorities have targeted all those returning, who, if they are lucky, will get only a “coffee-style” interview, but more often than not will face incarceration and possibly torture or even rape. About 15,000 Syrians died from torture from March 2011 to June 2021, according to one Syrian human rights group.
Second, which refugees get picked up is completely arbitrary. Detainees are not told why they have been arrested or under what law. Before returning, many check to see if they are wanted for questioning, but if one branch of the mukhabarat, or intelligence service, does not want them, another may well. Returnees can be picked up at a checkpoint by a militia. Prison is not reserved only for those who have engaged in opposition activities. The end result is that not a single refugee can be secure in the knowledge they will be safe.
Third, there is the ever-changing fluidity of what it is permissible to say and do in Syria. At certain points, mild criticism of the regime is allowed, while at other times there is zero tolerance. Even Syrians who have never left the country find it difficult to know where the red lines are now. This also applies to whether a refugee will be accepted back or not.
Although most refugees balk at the idea of returning, some do go back of their own accord, not least because conditions where they are have become so tough. In Lebanon, more than 90 percent of Syrian refugees now live in extreme poverty. Just how many Syrian refugees have gone back is not clear, since some return by informal routes. According to the UNHCR, at least 282,283 Syrian refugees returned from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey on their own terms between 2016 and May 2021. The huge increase in costs in Lebanon, especially for healthcare, played a role. Many found to their cost that circumstances had not changed, as they had been led to believe. Lebanese officials assured one refugee that he had security clearance in Syria, only for him to be locked up and tortured on his return.
Refugee-hosting countries — their economies in danger of reaching a tipping point — are keen to encourage return. In fact, Turkey has been guilty of forcibly sending back Syrians, typically into the areas of northern Syria it occupied or areas under control of groups with which it is associated. These Syrians may not originate from these areas and it is by no means safe for them.
The Lebanese authorities are openly hostile. Lebanon has summarily deported Syrian refugees they deemed to have irregularly entered the country after April 2019. At a local level, certain municipalities have evicted Syrians from their territory. In Jordan, the situation is better but still fragile.
According to evidence given to HRW, Jordanian border guards inform Syrians crossing into Syria that they cannot re-enter Jordan for three to five years. This is a violation of refugee law. Yet even richer states, such as Denmark, have withdrawn residency permits from Syrians, arguing it is safe, even in Damascus.
How to handle these huge Syrian refugee populations is an ongoing challenge, not least since a fatigued international donor community was able to fund only half the UN appeals for aid in 2020. Host communities are tired and suffering from their own crises. But sending refugees back into the arms of the Syrian regime, with its record, is no solution.