Syrians should not be forced to return to an unsafe Syria

The premature repatriation of displaced Syrians could cause further cycles of violence and suffering.

Syrian refugee children play together, as Lebanon extends a lockdown to co
Syrian refugee children play together at a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon on May 7, 2020 [File: Reuters/Ali Hashisho]

Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are facing increasingly difficult circumstances in camps inside Syria and a number of host countries. With many countries looking to cut funds for humanitarian aid due to economic difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, displaced Syrians are likely to face even worse prospects in the following months. 

At the same time, a political solution that would guarantee the rights of the displaced to a safe, voluntary and dignified return is not even on the horizon. It increasingly seems that the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are solely focused on cementing the political and demographic changes achieved through violence.

Yet there seems to be growing support for the repatriation of large numbers of Syrians to regime-held areas without any real guarantees for their security or international presence to ensure their basic rights are respected. Such a scenario would almost certainly result in more violence and displacement.

A recent survey by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD) captures the increasing precarity and insecurity that displaced Syrians face.

Feeling unsettled

The majority of the seven million internally displaced Syrians are enduring the worst living conditions since the start of the war, especially the more than two million in Idlib and northern Aleppo provinces.

They are housed in squalid conditions in IDP camps on the Turkish border, without basic infrastructure and access to services like healthcare and education. Russia and China have recently used their veto power at the United Nations Security Council to further limit access to humanitarian aid by allowing the UN to use only one border crossing for humanitarian convoys to opposition-held areas in the northwest. On top of it all, COVID-19 cases have already been registered at the camps, fuelling fears of a major outbreak due to high population density and the absence of medical and sanitary infrastructure and supplies.

But Syrian refugees in some host countries are not faring much better in terms of security and living conditions. According to the SACD survey, displaced Syrians in countries like Lebanon and Turkey do not feel “settled”, meaning they do not feel safe and satisfied with their income level, basic services and housing, have problems with residency and do not feel they belong.

More than a million Syrians in Lebanon live in increasingly difficult circumstances, with only nine percent stating they feel safe and stable. Their situation is worsened by a range of bureaucratic hurdles, including a residency policy that makes it difficult for refugees to obtain a legal status, which in turn limits their access to education, work and healthcare and exposes them to the risk of arbitrary arrest. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report indicates that 74 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not have legal status.

The situation is compounded by increasingly hostile local political and media discourses on refugees, the government’s often discriminatory policies in combating the pandemic, the raging economic crisis in Lebanon and now the fallout from the Beirut blast.

Amid this uncertainty, Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs has put together a paper outlining plans to organise a mass return of Syrian refugees in close coordination with the Syrian regime and without any consideration for their basic right of non-refoulement and the many dangers returnees face, including arbitrary arrest, torture, extortion and forced conscription. In July, the Council of Ministers gave the paper a preliminary approval, signalling the grave danger refugees in Lebanon may find themselves in.

In Turkey, which hosts the largest number of Syrians – close to four million – the situation is also getting worse. Whereas in previous years Syrian refugees felt welcome there, according to the SACD report, the percentage of refugees that feel settled has decreased to 34 percent. Syrians increasingly see their presence in Turkey as only a temporary, transitory phase.

This has been mainly due to the politicisation of the refugee issue, which has been central to tensions between the ruling party and the opposition and has led to the introduction of new procedures related to legal status. The increased hostility of the Turkish public towards the refugees and shrinking economic opportunities have also contributed to this situation.

Turkish officials have also floated the idea of resettling a large number of refugees in territories that have come under Turkish control after its offensive against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria last year.

What a return would look like

According to the SACD survey, some 73 percent of displaced Syrians would be willing to return to their homes if adequate conditions existed. Some 80 percent said that for that to happen, security had to improve.

While 87 percent of SACD’s respondents were confident that they were well-informed about the situation in Syria, the vast majority were not aware that currently the Syrian regime requires returnees to sign a “reconciliation agreement”.

The document, a signed copy of which any prospective returnee must submit to the Syrian embassy at the host country, speaks of refugees as “Syrians who left the country illegally”. Signing it amounts to a confession of having committed a legal violation.

About 80 percent of Syrians surveyed for the SACD report stated they did not have any meaningful information about the content of this document. Of the 20 percent who did have some information about it, most believed it was tantamount to an admission of committing crimes against the state. Some 98 of those who expressed a desire to return said that they would not sign such a document and it would be an obstacle to their return.

Encouraging or even forcing ill-informed displaced people to return to their homes where the situation is far from stable and secure is a recipe for disaster. International humanitarian agencies should not participate in initiatives by various governments that could result in the unsafe return of Syrian refugees and IDPs. They have the responsibility to make sure displaced people are properly informed of their rights and the conditions of any return.

SACD has documented various forms of repression faced by the small number of returnees. In Damascus province, there have been hundreds of arrests and disappearances, including those of recently returned IDPs and refugees.

But perhaps the best illustration of what would happen if larger numbers of IDPs and refugees are forced to return is what has been happening in Deraa province since the local population sign a “reconciliation agreement” brokered by Russia in 2018.

As a result of the agreement, the bombardment by regime forces stopped and thousands of residents who were displaced to the desert near the border with Jordan were able to return to their homes. Many were relieved to be able to go back home and not have to worry about air strikes any more. But soon problems started.

The agreement had allowed the on-the-ground deployment of Syrian regime forces and Iranian militias, who started harassing the local population. Arbitrary arrests, forced conscription, torture and extortion became an everyday occurrence, while the regime did not do much to improve service provision or undertake reconstruction efforts.

In March 2019, the situation escalated when the local authorities tried to erect a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Deraa city, triggering widespread protests. The regime responded with more repression, which provoked a violent response from civilians and former members of armed opposition groups who began attacking the regime’s checkpoints at night and assassinating members of its forces.

By early 2020, the confrontation resulted in deadly clashes and the deployment of more regime forces to the province. Several towns were besieged and in some, opposition youth were forced to leave under new reconciliation agreements. Those have since collapsed and the province has entered another cycle of violence. Thus, just two years after the return of IDPs, many have been forced from their homes either by fighting or by persistent harassment and repression by the regime.

Working towards a permanent peace

Despite much talk in the West about the end of the war in Syria approaching, the country is not a safe place and Syrian refugees and IDPs would not return willingly to it. In fact, many of the participants in the SACD survey, primarily those who do not feel settled in Lebanon and Turkey or are displaced inside Syria, expressed a desire to flee to Europe.

This is, of course, not surprising. Many Syrian refugees and IDPs form their perception of conditions in Europe based on conversations with friends and relatives who have made it there. And in the SACD survey, some 97 percent of respondents who were refugees in European countries said they felt “settled”, indicating that they felt safe and somewhat comfortable in their new homes.

While this testifies to the commendable manner in which most European countries have received and absorbed Syrian refugees, we must not forget the scenes from the Turkish-Greek border in February this year when the Greek and some European Union leaders did not hesitate to use military force to prevent several hundred refugees from crossing over. We can easily imagine the direction in which things would develop if tens or hundreds of thousands headed in the same direction as a result of being forced to return to Syria against their will. 

Those scenes can serve as a reminder of the urgent need for the UN itself – as well as various governments and entities that have a stake in the Syrian war, including the EU, United States, and Turkey – to start working now to redraw and accelerate the Syrian political process towards a political solution that will guarantee a safe, voluntary and dignified return to all displaced Syrians.

Failure to do so would be catastrophic. And not just for Syrians.

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