Can refugees return to Syria, as many want them to?

Countries want Syrian refugees to go back, but have they done anything to stop the Assad regime creating more refugees?

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    A counter-protestor makes his voice heard as immigration activists march through New York to mark World Refugee Day on June 20 [Drew Angerer/AFP]
    A counter-protestor makes his voice heard as immigration activists march through New York to mark World Refugee Day on June 20 [Drew Angerer/AFP]

    It is indescribably devastating to watch as the international community intensifies its push to normalise the occupied, murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. Major players in Syria are using Syrian lives as leverage and to signal they've had enough of Syrians and their "crisis".

    Recently, the UNHCR made an odd, somewhat troubling, statement. Based on figures from aid agencies, their spokesman said that 440,000 internally displaced Syrians - meaning Syrians already in Syria - have supposedly returned to their homes since the start of 2017 and that this was a "notable trend".

    He then went on to say that despite this, the agency wouldn't recommend or sponsor refugee returns given multiple risks that remain, and that Syrians seeking asylum in other nations needed to be given safe havens.

    There are two levels of frustration that come with such statements: first, that 440,000 IDPs are being presented as a "notable trend" in the context of over six million Syrians displaced internally and over five million living as refugees in other countries; and second, such statements carry very little weight with an international community that has shown not only is it content with letting Assad and his allies continue creating refugees, but is also willing to join the "war on terror" perpetuated by Assad and his allies.

    When Syrians 'go back'

    When the UNHCR says conditions are not ideal for return, it means that Syrians, refugees or not, face risks with any movements they attempt to make, starting from the moment they stand in line at any given border to re-enter their country.

    Syrians I've spoken to tell me about abuse and corruption at the borders of neighbouring countries. One told me they had to pay bribes to border officials in Jordan to ensure safe passage back to Syria. Several have told me their passports were confiscated in Jordan and they were told to check in with Syrian intelligence branches upon their return to their hometowns.

    Others returning to Syria through Lebanon have waited for hours to be let back into Syria, fearing the worst as Lebanese and Syrian regime officials humiliated and berated them. That's aside from the money they've had taken from them at the borders, which is particularly painful given that most of these Syrians are already suffering financially. Then, there are those whose sons over 18 are immediately whisked off to forced conscription with the regime's army.

    This problem of forced conscription, faced mainly by young men, is a major risk not only at the borders, but also in areas under the control of the regime and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The Assad regime's ministry of defence has recently imposed new laws for punishing any men who attempt to evade mandatory service in the regime's army.

    Once Syrians make it back into Syria, they have to pass through checkpoints, risking detention at the hands of the regime or various armed militias. Syrians, both refugees and IDPs, tell stories of being questioned for hours by the regime's militias and seeing fellow countrymen killed at these checkpoints. 

    OPINION: Xenophobia will not solve Lebanon's refugee crisis

    In liberated areas, IDPs also face incidents of harassment and extortion and fall victim to infighting between armed groups. That is beside the continuing air strikes by the Syrian regime, Russia and the US-led international coalition that have killed, maimed and displaced thousands of innocent civilians.

    Refugee dodge ball

    On World Refugee Day last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech in which he spoke about Turkey's generosity to refugees, telling the international community Turkey could help advise on how to permanently solve the Syrian refugee crisis. Earlier this year, Turkey and Russia, despite backing opposing sides in Syria, agreed to work together (with Iran) to establish de-escalation zones across Syria - a plan that never really worked.

    In one way or another, all of these major players have contributed to Assad and his allies clinging to power and have obstructed the Syrian revolution. Yet, they now have the audacity to resent the presence of Syrian refugees within their borders.

     

    And despite the fact Turkey is host to the most Syrian refugees, it has sealed off its Syrian border with a massive wall built for security purposes and to stem the refugee flow. There has also been a growing number of incidents of Turkish border guards shooting at Syrian refugees trying to cross the border. NGOs operating in Turkey - some working with Syrian refugees - are also facing a crackdown by the Turkish government. As isolated incidents, these occurrences wouldn't mean much. But examined as a whole, it is clear refugees are paying the price as Turkey deals with its own internal affairs and attempts to clear out anyone it deems a threat.

    In Lebanon, three refugee camps were destroyed in a matter of days, two of them destroyed by fires and one of them raided by Lebanese authorities. Dozens of Syrian refugees were arrested in the Arsal camp raid in the name of "fighting terrorism", and at least five of them were returned as bodies, tortured to death in custody.

    In the days after these incidents, Lebanon's prime minister, Saad Hariri, published a series of tweets, including in them a call to put pressure on the Assad regime to allow the UN to build camps on the Syrian side of the shared border as a means to better protect Lebanese interests.

    Hezbollah, a backer of the Assad regime and abuser of the Syrian people, is now brokering deals with various actors in Syria to force refugees back over the border from Arsal. Tension in Lebanon is at all-time highs, as is anti-Syrian refugee sentiment.

    And it is not just Syria's neighbours. In the West, the United States and France have been the loudest about their willingness to acquiesce to Russian demands in Syria. Furthermore, the US has already reached the 50,000 refugee resettlement cap set by the Trump administration, meaning that not only is it allowing abuses to be committed on its behalf in Syria, it is also actively blocking victims of its crimes in Syria from seeking refuge in the US. Syria is also one of the six countries included in Trump's travel ban, which is now being battled in the courts.

    In one way or another, all of these major players have contributed to Assad and his allies clinging to power and have obstructed the Syrian revolution. Yet, they now have the audacity to resent the presence of Syrian refugees within their borders. 

    Malak Chabkoun is an independent Middle East researcher and writer based in the US. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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