The spectre of a Syrian Srebrenica

The dehumanisation campaign Syrians are facing is strikingly similar to the one that led to the genocide of Bosnians.

refugees leaving lebanon Reuters
A Syrian refugee girl who left Lebanon looks through a window as she arrives in Qalamoun, Syria June 28, 2018 [File: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters]

Refugees are being hunted, arrested and forcibly returned to the regime they fled in increasing numbers. The “reasons” for their targeting are multiple, from formalities regarding their documents to accusations of extremism and criminality. There is little selectivity in their targeting.

Men, women and children are being deported, professors and labourers, former officials and activists, engineers and their underage sons and daughters. They are being reported by the security forces, officials and ordinary people, often on the basis of their accent or appearance.

Refugee camps are being infiltrated by provocateurs loyal to the regime and its local allies who compete in identifying those who should be deported to face almost certain detention, torture, disappearance, and death.

They are being forcibly returned at dawn, at midnight or the middle of the day, entire families or just men, taken from their crying wives and children. The government was not to be deterred in executing their “patriotic” mission by the cries of the families, by the warnings of the few civil society activists, or feeble protests of the international community.

As if in a frenzy, the public supported their deeds, vile dehumanization spreading through the public discourse shaped by the media. A sea of hate-mongering headlines reduced refugees to a problem that must be resolved for the sake of “our state and our wellbeing”.

As they were handed over to the regime forces they would immediately be detained to be “cleared” by security. Most of the men aged 18 to 60 who were forcibly returned were never to be seen again. Orchestrated incitement and hate speech defeated international law and humanity.

While reading this introduction, you may be wondering why the nationality of the refugees has not been specified as Syrian, the country they are being forcibly returned from as Lebanon, or the regime they fled from as that of Bashar al-Assad. It is because the text is, in fact, an excerpt from the book A Fatal Freedom by renowned Montenegrin journalist Seki Radoncic which describes the mistreatment of Bosnian refugees in Montenegro in 1992.

In his book, Radoncic documented in detail how the Bosnian refugees were rounded up and handed over to the forces of the Bosnian Serb regime led by Radovan Karadzic, who was later convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide. The author also described the campaign of dehumanisation that paved the way for the deportations, citing numerous illustrative headlines and slogans from local papers such as “The stench of Turks spreads [across Montenegro]” or “Remove the plague [of Bosnians] from our midst”.

Almost three decades later, most of the men and boys who were forcibly returned to areas under the control of Karadzic’s security forces are still listed as “disappeared”. Remains of some have been found at the bottom of an artificial lake near Serbia’s border with Montenegro when it was drained in 2010. We may never find out about the fates of the rest. 

The language of dehumanisation that enabled these crimes has become a rallying call for global Islamophobia personified by the likes of Andres Breivik and Brenton Tarrant today.

As a Bosnian, I have long hoped that the declarations of commitment to protect those most vulnerable in conflicts, made by the UN and the EU after the genocide my people suffered, will be more than letters on paper, as was the case in Bosnia.

To see it all unfold again in such a similar fashion, as those bound by international mechanisms to protect refugees and civilians in conflict look the other way, makes me question not only their commitment to the human rights framework built over the last 70 years, but also their understanding of the long-term consequences of allowing a group of vulnerable people to be dehumanised, forcibly returned to their country of origin and left to the mercy of the regime they desperately tried to run away from.

Lebanon is hosting more than a million Syrian refugees, and this is, of course, putting a huge strain on the country’s economy as well as its complex and fragile intercommunal relations. Moreover, one of al-Assad’s most important allies in the region, Hezbollah, is a prominent player in Lebanon’s political arena, making the issue of Syrian refugees even more complex than it already is. 

It is clear that Lebanon needs international support to ensure that refugees are provided with adequate support until a political solution is reached in Syria, which will guarantee their right to a voluntary, safe and dignified return. The Lebanese people should not be made to suffer for their generosity in accepting more refugees than almost all Western countries put together. 

However, the dehumanisation campaign led by prominent Lebanese politicians and media organisations directed at Syrian refugees in Lebanon could have dire consequences that would have an effect far beyond the country’s borders.

In a manner painfully familiar to Bosnians, Syrians in Lebanon are being reduced to a problem, a malignant foreign tissue that needs to be removed from the country by any means necessary. This discourse, which portrays Syrian refugees as sub-human, normalises hatred of Syrians and even classifies it as an act of patriotism.

The primary aim of this campaign seems to be to facilitate the forced return of refugees to Assad-held areas – either by expelling them or by making their living conditions so dire that they have no other choice but to leave. These policies are not only in violation of international norms but also could result in another wave of Syrian refugees trying to reach European shores in search of safety. 

The Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity (SACD), a movement of the displaced Syrians advocating for their rights and minimum conditions for a voluntary, safe and dignified return, has repeatedly warned that returning to Assad-held areas is not safe for the vast majority of displaced Syrians.

UNHCR has admitted that it has no access to some areas in Syria under al-Assad’s control, and is not able to ascertain whether it is safe for refugees to return there. The testimonies of people who trusted Russian guarantees and entered so-called “reconciliation agreements” with the Syrian regime, and those who were forced to return from Lebanon or Rukban camp on the Jordanian border, speak of systemic detention, beatings, harassment, forced recruitment – with scores sent to die at the Idlib and Hama front lines – disappearances and death.

Forcing the refugees who opposed al-Assad’s regime to return to Syria without establishing the minimal conditions necessary for them to lead safe and dignified lives, guaranteed and monitored by a robust international mechanism, would mean they would meet the same fate as the Bosnians who were handed over to Karadzic. 

Most of the Syrians I know are convinced that the vast majority of the displaced currently living in Lebanon would rather risk their lives trying to reach Europe than return home and try to survive at the mercy of al-Assad.

Such an exodus would undoubtedly cause a new earthquake in Europe. Moreover, the discourse of dehumanisation that is currently being used in Lebanon is creating new recruitment opportunities for radicalisation, which would pose a real threat both for Lebanon and Europe in the long-term.

Therefore, taking swift action to stop the campaign of dehumanisation directed at the Syrian refugees is not only a moral imperative for the EU, the UN and the rest of international community but also a political necessity. 

As we in Bosnia mark yet another anniversary of the genocide committed by Serb forces in the UN-protected zone of Srebrenica (whose victims were largely Bosnians displaced from neighbouring towns and villages) amid the growing revisionism and continued instability, it is crystal clear that there is one phenomenon at the heart of the suffering experienced by both Bosnians and Syrians: dehumanisation.

It was the dehumanisation of Bosnian Muslims that enabled Karadzic’s genocidaires and it was the same dehumanisation that fed the international community’s indifference.

Its legacy has shaped today’s Bosnia but is also impacting Europe and the world. If allowed to continue in the way we are seeing it in Lebanon, and more recently in Turkey, the consequences of the dehumanisation of displaced Syrians may haunt us all for generations to come.   

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