Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear

Special Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear
About 5.6 million of displaced Syrians have fled abroad. (AFP)
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Updated 08 December 2022

Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear

Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear
  • Countries that had offered sanctuary are devising plans to return displaced households, either voluntarily or by force
  • Human rights monitors say returnees are often harassed, detained without charge, tortured, and even disappeared

DUBAI: When Amir left his war-ravaged hometown of Homs, western Syria, in 2013, he believed he was heading somewhere that would offer him and his family lasting security and sanctuary from his nation’s grinding civil war.

Packing what few belongings were left unscathed by the regime’s incessant barrel bombing, Amir boarded a bus bound for Lebanon with his sister, Alia, and her toddler, Omar, where the trio settled in a camp in Arsal, Baalbek.

“My brother is a proud man,” Alia told Arab News from her adopted home in Lebanon. “After our parents died under rubble, he took it upon himself to fend for us and to raise my son, Omar.”

In doing so, Amir and his family joined the ranks of millions of Syrians displaced by the civil war — the majority of whom have settled in neighboring Turkiye, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, while others have struck out for Europe and beyond.

What started in 2011 as a peaceful protest movement demanding greater civic freedoms quickly escalated into one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, with a death toll now numbering in the hundreds of thousands.




Around 13 million people have been displaced by the war. (AFP)

Another 100,000 people have disappeared, likely abducted by security service agents to be tortured and killed in Bashar Assad’s prisons. To date, around 13 million people have been displaced by the war — 5.6 million of them fleeing abroad.

Now, many of those countries that had offered sanctuary have devised plans to return their Syrian guests, either voluntarily or by force, despite warnings from aid agencies and refugees themselves that Syria remains unsafe and blighted by poverty.

Syrian refugees are viewed by the Assad regime and its loyalists as traitors and dissidents. Human rights monitors have identified cases of returnees being harassed, detained without charge, tortured, and even disappeared.

Nevertheless, countries like Lebanon, Turkiye and Denmark, grappling with their own economic pressures and rising anti-immigrant sentiments, have been upping the ante on Syrians to return home, claiming the civil war is now over.

In 2021, Denmark adopted a “zero asylum-seekers” policy, resulting in many Syrians who had been based there since 2015 having their residency status revoked, while others were removed to deportation facilities.

Struggling to take care of its own native population, the caretaker government of crisis-wracked Lebanon announced its own repatriation plan in October this year, with the aim of sending back 15,000 refugees per month.

The situation in Turkiye is no different, according to reports. Stories have emerged on social media of refugees being forced to sign voluntary return forms.

According to reports from the France-based advocacy group Syrians for Truth and Justice, Syrians dropped off at the Bab Al-Salama border crossing by Turkish authorities are classified as “voluntary returnees,” despite this being a regime-controlled crossing.

Returnees — voluntarily or otherwise — often face harassment, extortion, forced recruitment, torture and arbitrary arrest upon arrival on the regime side, irrespective of their age or gender.

Mazen Hamada, a high-profile activist and torture survivor who has testified about the horrors of Syrian regime prisons, mystified the world when he decided to return to Damascus in 2020.

Hamada, who long spoke of his mental torment following his release and his loneliness in exile, returned to Syria from the Netherlands under an amnesty agreement supposedly guaranteeing his freedom.

However, upon arrival in Damascus in February 2020, Hamada was arrested and has not been seen or heard from since.

Last year, human rights monitor Amnesty International released a report, titled “You’re returning to your death,” which documented serious violations committed by regime intelligence officers against 66 returnees, 13 of whom were children.




Around 100,000 people have disappeared, likely abducted by security service agents to be tortured and killed in Bashar Assad’s prisons. (AFP)

Five returnees had died while in custody, while the fate of 17 remains unknown. Fourteen cases of sexual assault were also recorded — seven of which included rape — perpetrated against five women, a teenage boy, and a five-year-old girl.

Voices for Displaced Syrians, another advocacy group based in Istanbul, published a study in February this year, titled “Is Syria safe for return? Returnees’ perspective,” based on interviews with 300 returnees and internally displaced persons across four governorates.

Their accounts outlined extreme human rights violations, physical and psychological abuses, and a lack of legal protections. Some 41 percent of respondents had returned to Syria voluntarily, while 42 percent said they had returned out of necessity, as a result of poor living conditions in their host country and a longing to reunify with family.

With regard to their treatment upon arrival, 17 percent reported they or a loved one had been arbitrarily arrested, 11 percent spoke of harassment and physical violence inflicted upon them or a family member, and 7 percent chose not to answer.

As for internally displaced persons, 46 percent reported they or a relative had been arrested, 30 percent recounted bodily harm, and 27 percent said they had faced persecution owing to their origins and hometowns. Many also reported difficulties reclaiming private property.




With regard to their treatment upon arrival, 17 percent reported they or a loved one had been arbitrarily arrested, 11 percent spoke of harassment and physical violence inflicted upon them or a family member. (AFP)

Despite the mounting body of evidence suggesting the regime is continuing to target civilians it considers dissidents, several countries are choosing to pursue normalization with Assad, lobbying for his rehabilitation into the Arab fold and reopening their embassies in Damascus.

For the relatives of returnees who have since gone missing, these developments smack of betrayal.

Amir, who eventually returned to Syria voluntarily, appears to have suffered the same fate as the activist Hamada. Tired of living in poverty in Lebanon, far from his extended family, he went back in Oct. 2021. He has not been heard from since.

“Life in Lebanon has become rather unbearable. Amir would return humiliated every time he left the house,” his sister Alia told Arab News.

Having initially lived in a UNHCR-provided tent in Arsal, Amir and his family finally managed to acquire a small one bedroom house near the camps. Alia said it was a constant struggle to scrimp together enough money to pay the rent.

Most refugees are unable to secure consistent employment due to their lack of official papers, which, under normal circumstances, would grant them residency and facilitate a stable income. Amir, like many working age men around him, resorted to hard manual labor.

Those who try to find work in the big cities risk being arrested at Lebanese checkpoints, imprisoned, and deported for staying in the country illegally.

Since Amir’s disappearance, Alia has been forced to make do on a single income cleaning houses.




What started in 2011 as a peaceful protest movement demanding greater civic freedoms quickly turned into a brutal crackdown by the Bashar Assad regime, and one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. (AFP)

“He couldn’t take it anymore, being spoken to like a little boy by some of his employers and the degrading comments he’d hear at times,” said Alia.

“It happens to me too, but I hold back my tongue. I cannot afford to stand up for myself. He thought he would take his chances and return to Syria in the hope of finding us a place, back to familiarity.”

She says she begged her brother not to leave, aware of the many refugees they knew personally who had been mistreated upon their return to Syria. Some had been held in prison until they made bail, while others had gone missing.

“But he didn’t listen,” said Alia. “It’s been over a year since he left and I haven’t heard from him.”


 


Heads of Arab and pan-African parliament discuss cooperation on mutual interests  

Heads of Arab and pan-African parliament discuss cooperation on mutual interests  
Updated 31 January 2023

Heads of Arab and pan-African parliament discuss cooperation on mutual interests  

Heads of Arab and pan-African parliament discuss cooperation on mutual interests  

The President of the Arab Parliament, Adel bin Abd al-Rahman al-Asoumi, met with the President of the Pan-African Parliament, Chief Fortune Charumbira on Tuesday.  

The officials met on the sidelines of the Conference of the Union of Councils of Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Algeria, a statement by the Arab Parliament said. 

The two sides reviewed regional and international interests, and agreed on full coordination in international forums in support of all Arab and African matters.  

The Speaker of the Arab Parliament affirmed that the Arab and African regions possess many common denominators that contribute to supporting Arab and African matters, especially the Palestinian issue and the Libyan crisis.


Three Al-Qaeda suspects killed in Yemen drone strike: officials

Three Al-Qaeda suspects killed in Yemen drone strike: officials
Updated 31 January 2023

Three Al-Qaeda suspects killed in Yemen drone strike: officials

Three Al-Qaeda suspects killed in Yemen drone strike: officials
  • The attack was carried out on a car in Marib province

YEMEN, Marib: Three alleged Al-Qaeda militants were killed in a suspected US drone strike in northeastern Yemen on Monday, local government officials said.
The attack was carried out on a car in Marib province, the scene of heavy fighting in 2021 in Yemen's long-running civil war, the officials said.
“Three Al-Qaeda members were killed in a strike by a drone that is believed to be American,” a government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The three were in a car in Wadi Obeida when they were targeted by the suspected US strike that killed them immediately.”
A second Marib government official confirmed the strike on Al-Qaeda militants and the death toll. There was no immediate comment from Washington.
The United States considers Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch - Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - among the most dangerous branches of the global jihadist network.
AQAP, and other militants loyal to Daesh, have thrived in the chaos of Yemen’s civil war.
AQAP has carried out operations against both the Houthis and government forces as well as sporadic attacks abroad.
Its leaders have been targeted by a US drone war for more than two decades, although the number of strikes has dropped off in recent years.
The conflict in Yemen has since killed tens of thousands of people and triggered what the United Nations terms the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with millions of people displaced.


After drought, winter rains revive Iraq’s famed marshlands

After drought, winter rains revive Iraq’s famed marshlands
Updated 31 January 2023

After drought, winter rains revive Iraq’s famed marshlands

After drought, winter rains revive Iraq’s famed marshlands
  • raq has faced three consecutive years of severe drought and scorching heat, with temperatures regularly exceeding 50 degrees Celsius

Chibayish: Black buffaloes wade through the waters of Iraq’s Mesopotamian marshes, leisurely chewing on reeds. After years of drought, winter rains have brought some respite to herders and livestock in the famous wetlands.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the marshes were parched and dusty last summer by drought in the climate-stressed country and by reduced flow from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers due to dams built upstream in Turkiye and Iran.
Winter brings seasonal rains, offering relief in marshes like those of Huwaizah — which straddles the border with Iran — and Chibayish, located in nearby Dhi Qar province.
Among the reeds of Chibayish, buffalo farmer Rahim Daoud now uses a stick to punt his boat across an expanse of water.
“This summer, it was dirt here; there was no water,” said the 58-year-old. “With the rain that has fallen, the water level has risen.”
Last summer, photographers traveled to the Huwaizah and Chibayish marshes to document the disappearance of large portions of the wetlands, observing vast expanses of dry and cracked soil dotted with yellowed shrubs.
In October, an official in the impoverished rural province of Dhi Qar said that in the previous six months, 1,200 families had left the marshes and other agricultural areas of southern Iraq and more than 2,000 buffaloes had died.
Iraq has faced three consecutive years of severe drought and scorching heat, with temperatures regularly exceeding 50 degrees Celsius during the summer of 2022.
“There is a gradual improvement,” Hussein Al-Kenani said after the recent rains.
Kenani, who heads the governmental center in charge of protecting the wetlands, said rainwater collected in canals and rivers has been redirected to the marshes.
“The water level in Chibayish’s swamps has increased by more than 50 centimeters compared with December and by more than 30 centimeters for the Huwaizah swamps,” Kenani said.
In July, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization deplored the “unprecedented low water levels” in the marshes, highlighting “the disastrous impact” for more than 6,000 families, whose buffaloes and livelihoods were being lost.
The relief of rainfall early this month was welcomed by the UN agency, which noted in a statement that in the Chibayish region “salinity levels decreased” to the point where people and animals could again drink the water.
“This has had a great positive impact, especially on buffalo herders,” it said.
While the crisis has been relieved for now, there are fears about the longer-term fate of the threatened wetland habitat.
“There is not enough water coming from the Turkish side,” said Jassim Assadi, head of environmental group Nature Iraq, who added that Iraq’s dams upstream from the marshes “do not have an adequate and sufficient reservoir for the rest of the year.”
“The rains alone are not enough,” he said, voicing fears about another looming “problem next summer.”


Sunni cleric’s aide arrested in restive southeast Iran

Sunni cleric’s aide arrested in restive southeast Iran
Updated 31 January 2023

Sunni cleric’s aide arrested in restive southeast Iran

Sunni cleric’s aide arrested in restive southeast Iran
  • Abdolmajid Moradzehi was accused of “manipulating public opinion”

TEHRAN: An aide to Sunni Muslim cleric Molavi Abdol Hamid, an influential leader of Iran’s ethnic Baluchi minority, was arrested in the restive southeastern city of Zahedan late Monday, state media said.
Abdolmajid Moradzehi was accused of “manipulating public opinion” and “communicating on several occasions with foreign individuals and media outlets,” the official IRNA news agency said.
Zahedan is the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province, which is home to the ethnic Baluch minority and had been the site of often deadly violence even before nationwide protests erupted in September over the death in custody of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini.
On September 30 last year, dozens of people, including members of the security forces, were killed when thousands took to the streets after Friday prayers at the city’s Makki mosque, headed by Abdol Hamid.
They were protesting the alleged rape of a 15-year-old-girl in custody in the port city of Chabahar by a local police commander.
As the protests raged on for weeks and months, Iranian officials were critical of Abdol Hamid, describing his prayer sermons as “provocative.”
“If there were no provocative remarks in the sermons, we would have seen peace in Zahedan,” Iran’s deputy interior minister Majid Mirahmadi said in late October when asked about the persistent unrest.
State media characterised the unrest as attacks by “extremists” on police stations. Abdol Hamid said security forces “shot at people” around the mosque, amid public anger over the alleged rape.
Zahedan is one of the few cities in Shiite-majority Iran which is mainly Sunni.


Carrier Emirates test flies Boeing 777 on sustainable fuel

Carrier Emirates test flies Boeing 777 on sustainable fuel
Updated 31 January 2023

Carrier Emirates test flies Boeing 777 on sustainable fuel

Carrier Emirates test flies Boeing 777 on sustainable fuel
  • Airplane and engine manufacturers have been designing more-efficient models, in part to help keep down costs of jet fuel — one of the biggest expenses airlines face

DUBAI: Long-haul carrier Emirates successfully flew a Boeing 777 on a test flight Monday with one of its two engines entirely powered by so-called sustainable aviation fuel. This comes as carriers worldwide try to lessen their carbon footprint.
Flight 2646 flew for just under an hour over the coastline of the United Arab Emirates, after taking off from Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel, and heading out into the Arabian Gulf before circling to land. The second of the plane’s General Electric Co. engines ran on conventional jet fuel for safety.
“This flight is a milestone moment for Emirates and a positive step for our industry as we work collectively to address one of our biggest challenges — reducing our carbon footprint,” Adel Al-Redha, Emirates’ chief operation officer, said in a statement.
Emirates, a state-owned airline under Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, described the sustainable fuel as a blend “that mirrored the qualities of jet fuel.” It included fuel from Neste, a Finnish firm, and Virent, a Madison, Wisconsin-based company.
Virent describes itself as using plant-based sugars to make the compounds needed for sustainable jet fuel, while Neste’s fuel comes from vegetable oils and animal fats. Those fuels reduce the release of heat-trapping carbon dioxide typically burned off by engines in flight.

An Emirates Boeing 777-300ER is filled with sustainable aviation fuel in preparation for a milestone demonstration flight on Jan. 30, 2023 at Dubai airport. (AFP)

Aviation releases only one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide produced by cars and trucks, according to World Resources Institute, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. However, airplanes are used by far fewer people per day — meaning aviation is a higher per-capita source of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Airplane and engine manufacturers have been designing more-efficient models, in part to help keep down costs of jet fuel — one of the biggest expenses airlines face. Emirates, for instance, used over 5.7 million tons of jet fuel last year alone, costing it $3.7 billion out of its $17 billion in annual expenses.
But analysts suggest sustainable fuels can be three times or more the cost of jet fuel, likely putting ticket prices even higher as aviation restarts following the lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
It wasn’t immediately clear how much the fuel used in the Emirates’ test on Monday cost per barrel. Jet fuel cost on average $146 a barrel at the end of last week, according to S&P Global Platts.
The UAE, a major oil producer and OPEC member, is to host the next United Nations climate negotiations, or COP28, beginning in November. Already, the seven sheikhdom federation has been criticized for nominating the CEO of Abu Dhabi’s state oil company to lead the UN negotiations known as the Conference of the Parties — where COP gets its name.