Conditions for return of Syrian refugees far from ripe
Every government in the Middle East, openly or secretly, is desperate to see Syrian refugees return to their home country and unburden their hosts of the hundreds of thousands of extra mouths to feed, children to educate and sick to treat.
Most of Syria’s 5 million UN-registered refugees survive — and little more — in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Who knows what their future holds seven-and-a-half years into this conflict? Many leading Lebanese politicians, including President Michel Aoun, insist on a refugee return. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has been clear, saying: “It is not in anyone’s interest for Lebanon’s economy to collapse under heavy migration. The circumstances in Syria have changed and many areas are safe. There is no reason for refugees to stay.” Bassil has been threatening the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon, even ordering a freeze on the renewal of UNHCR staff residency permits in June. Prime Minister Saad Hariri opposed this approach: “Nobody is going to force anybody to go back if they don’t want to go back.” Forcible return is a violation of international law.
The Russian and Syrian regimes are urging their return, begging the question: Has that time arrived? President Vladimir Putin thinks so, as he said in August: “I remind you that there are a million refugees in Jordan and a million in Lebanon. There are 3 million refugees in Turkey. This is potentially a huge burden on Europe, so it is better to do everything possible so that they can return home.” Syrian officials ape the same narrative. Their allies in this include far-right extremist groups such as the Alternative Help Association from Germany, who echo the dangerous claim Syria is safe.
In July, Russia launched its refugee plan after Donald Trump and Putin had discussed Syrian refugee return at their summit in Helsinki. The details are anorexically thin. Russian officials claim 1.7 million refugees could return; including 890,000 from Lebanon, 300,000 from Turkey and 200,000 from EU countries. The Russian defense ministry claims that 336,500 places across Syria have been readied to receive returning refugees. The Syrian government has created a coordination committee to help facilitate the potential return of refugees.
If only it was this easy. Simply, Syria is not ready to receive a large-scale refugee return, nor are the conditions safe for refugees. The UNHCR is clear that it does not facilitate returns as yet, arguing the situation is not ripe. All refugee returns must be voluntary, though worryingly some parties do advocate forced return.
The Russian and Syrian regimes want to send a message to the world that the war is over and Bashar Assad has won. They want the international community to embrace this reality and stump up the lion’s share of the $300 billion the UN reckons it will take to rebuild Syria. That the war is over will be news to many, not least those in Idlib. The regime also needs a young male workforce to participate in whatever reconstruction takes place. Refugees typically do not trust either regime.
Refugee safety and return depends on numerous factors. Above all, refugees have to be confident that they will not just be locked up on arrival. They will have heard the chilling statement of Jamil Hassan, the head of Syria’s air force intelligence, that: “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.”
Credible political change and reform will be a non-negotiable factor for many to return. Reconstruction will never be enough unless there is a rebuilding of Syrian society, a healing of the deep wounds and fissures of the last seven years and more, built on an effective reconciliation process. Many refugees have told me about the threats of revenge they fear. Law and order within Syria exists but is far from perfect depending on the area.
Secondly, many refugees will demand guarantees that, if they do return, their first experience will not be an express ride to the front lines in Idlib to join the killing spree against their fellow countrymen.
Refugees need to know that they will have a safe place to go to, which is a challenge given how much of the Syrian housing stock is in ruins
Thirdly, refugees need to know that they will have a safe place to go to, which is a challenge given how much of the Syrian housing stock is in ruins. Moreover, the regime has confiscated a huge proportion of refugee property. Unexploded ordinance will continue to pose a risk to civilians for years to come. Healthcare and education will be an issue. The World Health Organization says that “half of Syria’s healthcare facilities remain closed.”
That said, access to healthcare and education is not always fully available in camps and communities outside of Syria either. Some 300,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are not in school. Syrian refugees there can only work in sectors like construction, cleaning and agriculture. Perhaps most alarming for the refugees is the deterioration of relations with host communities, which have gone from welcoming to outright hostile in some cases.
Small-scale return is certainly happening, often beneath the radar. According to the UNHCR, some 13,000 Syrians went home from neighboring countries during the first six months of 2018 after being vetted by the regime. Yet questions must be asked about whether it was all voluntary, or as a result of the chronically awful conditions in certain refugee communities in Lebanon. Turkey claims about a quarter of a million have gone back.
This trickle is unlikely to become a surge. If anything, the threat is another huge exodus with any new war on Idlib. The dream of a beautiful return is something nearly all Syrians crave, but right now the situation is not even borderline close to that and perhaps never will be with this regime in power.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech