Why Syrian refugees are returning from host countries — despite fear of persecution

Analysis Why Syrian refugees are returning from host countries — despite fear of persecution
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Updated 05 March 2024
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Why Syrian refugees are returning from host countries — despite fear of persecution

Why Syrian refugees are returning from host countries — despite fear of persecution
  • UN officials have documented human rights violations and abuses meted out on returnees by Syrian authorities
  • Experts say hostility and deepening economic woes of host communities are compelling many families to return

LONDON: Faced with a multitude of economic, safety and regulatory challenges in neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled the civil war have returned home, despite the grim security and humanitarian situation that awaits them.

For many, this decision has exacted a heavy toll. A recent report by the UN Human Rights Office found that many refugees who fled the conflict to neighboring countries over the past decade now “face gross human rights violations and abuses upon their return to Syria.”

The report, published on Feb. 13, documented incidents in various parts of the country perpetrated by de facto authorities, the Syrian government, and an assortment of armed groups.




“The situation in these host countries has become so horrible that people are still making the decision to return back to Syria in spite of all the challenges,” Karam Shaar told Arab News. (AFP/File)

Returnees have to run the gauntlet of perils at the hands of “all parties to the conflict,” including enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest, torture and ill-treatment in detention, and death in custody, the report said.

Many of the returnees interviewed by the UN Human Rights Office said that they were called in for questioning by Syrian security agencies after their return to Syria.

Others reported being arrested and detained by government authorities in regime-held areas, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or Turkish-affiliated armed groups in the northwest, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast.

Not everyone who has returned to Syria has done so voluntarily.

On Sunday, reports emerged on social media of four Syrian detainees in Lebanon’s Roumieh prison near Beirut threatening to commit suicide after a brother and fellow inmate of one of the men was handed over to Syrian government authorities on March 2.

According to Samer Al-Deyaei, CEO and co-founder of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, who posted images of the prison protest on social media, the men are receiving medical attention and have been given assurances that their files would be reviewed.




Since violence erupted in Syria, more than 14 million people have fled their homes. (AFP/File)

However, the dispute has highlighted the willingness of Lebanese authorities to place Syrian refugees into the custody of regime officials, despite well documented cases of abuse in Syrian jails, thereby putting Lebanon in breach of the principle of non-refoulement.

Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of international law that forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in probable danger of persecution.

But fear of persecution has not stopped many thousands of Syrians who had been sheltering abroad from returning home in recent years.

Since 2016, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has verified or monitored the return of at least 388,679 Syrians from neighboring countries to Syria as of Nov. 30, 2023.

Karam Shaar, a senior fellow at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, believes the bleak situation in host countries such as Lebanon and Turkiye was the primary reason for the voluntary return of many Syrian refugees.

“The situation in these host countries has become so horrible that people are still making the decision to return back to Syria in spite of all the challenges,” he told Arab News.

“So, basically, they are between a rock and a hard place. And the sad thing is that no one is really even listening to them.”




Since 2016, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has verified or monitored the return of at least 388,679 Syrians from neighboring countries to Syria as of Nov. 30, 2023. (AFP/File)

Although Syrians enjoyed more international sympathy early in the civil war, which began in 2011, and when Daesh extremists were conquering swathes of the country in 2014, it has since become a “protracted conflict that not many governments are actually interested in looking at,” Shaar said.

Since violence erupted in Syria, more than 14 million people have fled their homes, according to UN figures. Of these, some 5.5 million have sought safety in Turkiye, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, while more than 6.8 million remain internally displaced.

Syrians in these host countries have also experienced hostility and discrimination at the hands of local communities. This hostile environment has been made worse by a rise in anti-refugee rhetoric.

“Politicians in neighboring countries always capitalize on these refugees and try to leverage their presence politically and even economically, such as in Jordan and in Egypt,” Shaar said.

In the study of migration, there are several “push and pull factors” that contribute to a person’s “decision to migrate or stay,” he said.

In the case of Lebanon, for instance, “the pull factors from Syria are virtually non-existent,” because a returnee might be persecuted, basic services are on the brink of collapse, there is widespread unemployment and inflation is high.

“However, on balance, that decision still makes sense only because the push factors are even harder,” Shaar said.

“So, these push factors in Lebanon, for example, include the inability to seek a job, the fact that the Lebanese government is now harassing UNHCR and asking them not to register refugees, the difficulties related to educating your children in public schools, and so on.”

For Syrian refugees, “the situation in Turkiye is also turning extremely dire,” he said.




Many of the returnees interviewed by the UN Human Rights Office said that they were called in for questioning by Syrian security agencies after their return to Syria. (AFP/File)

The refugee issue took center stage during the Turkish presidential election in May last year, with several opposition candidates campaigning on pledges to deport refugees.

Despite the country hosting an estimated 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees, Syrians have not been offered a seat in Turkiye’s political debates about their fate.

Similarly, in Lebanon, Syrian refugees live with the constant fear of deportation, especially after the Lebanese Armed Forces summarily deported thousands of Syrians in April 2023, including many unaccompanied minors.

The move was condemned by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch.

WHO HOSTS SYRIAN REFUGEES?

• 3.6m Turkiye

• 1.5m Lebanon

• 651k Jordan

• 270k Iraq

• 155k Egypt

Source: UNHCR

However, Jasmin Lilian Diab, director of the Institute for Migration Studies at the Lebanese American University, believes the lack of economic opportunities in neighboring countries has been the key issue that has driven Syrians to return or migrate elsewhere.

Some 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty, 20 percent of whom exist in deplorable conditions, according to the European Commission, citing data from UNHCR.

Due to the country’s economic collapse, coupled with insufficient humanitarian funding and the government’s rejection of local integration or settlement of refugees, these Syrians find themselves ever more vulnerable.

Syrian refugees interviewed by Diab’s team said that they would return because they are “tired of waiting around in the host country for a few things.”




Claiming that “everybody in Lebanon who is Syrian can return” is “not a safe narrative (or) a safe message to propagate,” said Jasmin Lilian Diab. (AFP/File)

Emphasizing that this was “not the overwhelming majority,” Diab said “many people returned from Lebanon because, after 12 years, there are really no integration prospects.”

She said: “The overwhelming majority of (Syrian refugees) would not prefer to stay or return but would rather engage in onward migration.”

Describing the current situation for most Syrian refugees in Lebanon as a “legal limbo,” Diab said “there is currently no willingness to integrate this population.”

Local municipalities across Lebanon have also imposed measures against Syrians that Amnesty International described as “discriminatory.” These include curfews and restrictions on renting accommodation.

Syrians in Lebanon rely on the informal labor market and humanitarian aid to survive. This population is mainly employed in agriculture, sanitation, services and construction.

Due to the limited resources and a lack of integration prospects, Diab believes that for many refugees, returning to Syria “makes sense.”




Fear of persecution has not stopped many thousands of Syrians who had been sheltering abroad from returning home in recent years. (AFP/File)

She said: “Even though there are reports on persecution and detainment, people who have returned have done that through their own family networks. The majority of people we have spoken to are not returning in a vacuum or venturing out on their own.

“They are doing this based on the recommendation of a family member who has either been there the entire conflict and tells them now it is safe enough to return or that they have secured a job or a livelihood opportunity for them.”

Diab said that another strategy employed by returnees is to go to Syria “in waves,” meaning that the primary breadwinner, predominantly a male figure, would return alone initially to “check the situation.” The rest of the household stays put, “waiting for his green light” to join him.

And while several host governments have discussed developing plans for the repatriation of Syrian refugees to Syria, UNHCR said last year the country was not suitable for a safe and dignified return.

Calling for a political resolution to the Syrian conflict, King Abdullah of Jordan stated in September 2023 at the UN General Assembly that his country’s “capacity to deliver necessary services to refugees has surpassed its limits.”

He noted that “refugees are far from returning” and that the UN agencies supporting them have faced shortfalls in funds, forcing them to reduce or cut aid.

The Lebanese government in 2022 announced a plan to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees to Syria per month under the pretext that “the war is over,” therefore “the country has become safe.”

But Diab does not believe the Lebanese government has “any assessments as to what safety means.”




Not everyone who has returned to Syria has done so voluntarily. (AFP/File)

“I do not think at the moment there are enough efforts to facilitate a safe return,” she said, highlighting that the Lebanese government “homogenizes the Syrian refugee population” and does not assess individuals’ situations to determine who might be able to return and for whom Syria was never safe.

“Now, because we lump all Syrians together in Lebanon, conversations on safety are very tricky to have,” Diab said.

Claiming that “everybody in Lebanon who is Syrian can return” is “not a safe narrative (or) a safe message to propagate,” she said.


Iran’s Khamenei hails US university students for Gaza support

Iran’s Khamenei hails US university students for Gaza support
Updated 2 sec ago
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Iran’s Khamenei hails US university students for Gaza support

Iran’s Khamenei hails US university students for Gaza support
  • Universities in the US were rocked by pro-Palestinian demonstrations in April, triggering campus clashes with police and the arrest of dozens of people
TEHRAN: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has praised university students in the United States for their protests over the rising death toll in the war in Gaza.
“You have now formed a branch of the Resistance Front,” said Khamenei, referring to Tehran-aligned armed groups across the Middle East arrayed against arch-foe Israel which is also known as the Axis of Resistance.
“As the page of history is turning, you are standing on the right side of it,” he said in a letter published on his official website on Thursday.
Universities in the United States were rocked by pro-Palestinian demonstrations in April, triggering campus clashes with police and the arrest of dozens of people.
The demonstrations began at Columbia University in New York and later spread across the country as well as to Europe and elsewhere.
Tehran has reiterated support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas since the outbreak of the war in the Gaza Strip.
The assault resulted in the deaths of 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,171 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry
Regional tensions have since soared, drawing in Iran-backed militant groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
Tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at Israel last month.

Rafah battles intensify as Israel takes over Gaza-Egypt border strip

Rafah battles intensify as Israel takes over Gaza-Egypt border strip
Updated 42 min 46 sec ago
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Rafah battles intensify as Israel takes over Gaza-Egypt border strip

Rafah battles intensify as Israel takes over Gaza-Egypt border strip
  • The Israeli military launched its incursion into Rafah in early May despite international objections over the fate of Palestinian civilians sheltering there

RAFAH: Rafah residents reported intense artillery shelling and gunfire Thursday in Gaza’s far-southern city after Israel said it had seized a strategic corridor on the Palestinian territory’s border with Egypt.
The Israeli military launched its incursion into Rafah in early May despite international objections over the fate of Palestinian civilians sheltering there.
A strike over the weekend that started a fire and killed dozens in a displacement camp drew a wave of fresh condemnation, including a social media campaign with the slogan “All eyes on Rafah” that has been shared by tens of millions of users.
Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari announced Israel had taken “operational control” of the narrow border area, where he said troops had “discovered around 20 tunnels.”
Egypt, a longtime mediator in the conflict which has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of the Israeli operation, has rejected claims of smuggling tunnels running beneath the buffer zone.
“Israel is using these allegations to justify continuing the operation on the Palestinian city of Rafah and prolonging the war for political purposes,” a high-level Egyptian source was quoted as saying by state-linked Al-Qahera News.
Egyptian officials have said a potential Israeli takeover of Philadelphi could violate the two countries’ landmark 1979 peace deal, though there has been no official comment from Cairo since the military’s announcement.
On a visit in Beijing, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called for increased humanitarian assistance to besieged Gaza, and reiterated his country’s longstanding opposition to “any attempt at forcing Palestinians to forcibly flee their land.”
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, meanwhile, called on Thursday for a “broad-based, authoritative and effective international peace conference” to address the war, as he hosted Arab leaders including El-Sisi.
On the ground in the Gaza Strip, witnesses reported fighting in central and western Rafah.
Witnesses also said Israeli forces had demolished several buildings in the city’s eastern areas where the Israeli incursion began on May 7, initially focusing on the vital Rafah border crossing, a key entry point for humanitarian aid.


An AFP correspondent reported artillery and gunfire in Gaza City’s southern neighborhood of Zeitun, in the territory’s north, where witnesses saw thick plumes of smoke rising over Jabalia refugee camp and Beit Lahia.
A steady stream of civilians have fled Rafah, transporting their belongings on their shoulders, in cars or on donkey-drawn carts.
Before the Rafah offensive began, the United Nations said up to 1.4 million people were sheltering there. Since then, one million have fled the area, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has said.
The Palestinian Red Crescent reported late Wednesday that two of its paramedics “were killed as a result of the Israeli occupation’s direct bombing” of an ambulance near Rafah.
The weekend Israeli strike and ensuing fire which tore through the camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, killed 45 people, according to Gaza officials and has prompted two days of discussions at the UN Security Council.
Israel has said it targeted a Hamas compound and killed two senior members.
In the wake of the strike, Algeria presented a draft UN resolution that “demands an immediate ceasefire respected by all parties” and the release of all hostages, but it was not clear when it would be put to a vote.
In a phone call with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday, France’s Emmanuel Macron said Paris was “determined to work with Algeria” to ensure the council “makes a strong statement on Rafah.”
He also called on Abbas to “implement necessary reforms,” offering the “prospect of recognition of the state of Palestine.”
Decisions by Spain, Norway and Ireland to formally recognize the State of Palestine this week have sparked a debate over the issue, and Macron said it should take place at a “useful moment.”
Israel’s has killed at least 36,171 people in Gaza since October 7, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said the war could go on until the year’s end.
“We may have another seven months of fighting to consolidate our success and achieve what we have defined as the destruction of Hamas’s power and military capabilities,” Hanegbi said.
The United States has been among the countries urging Israel to refrain from a full-scale Rafah offensive because of the risk to civilians.
However, the White House said Tuesday that so far it had not seen Israel cross President Joe Biden’s “red lines.”
The New York Times and CNN, citing weapons experts and analysis of video from the scene of the weekend Rafah strike, reported that the bomb believed to have started the fatal fire was a US-made GBU-39 guided munition.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Israel to quickly devise a post-war strategy for Gaza, stressing: “In the absence of a plan for the day after, there won’t be a day after.”


Iran opens registration period for presidential election after Raisi’s fatal helicopter crash

Iran opens registration period for presidential election after Raisi’s fatal helicopter crash
Updated 27 min 41 sec ago
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Iran opens registration period for presidential election after Raisi’s fatal helicopter crash

Iran opens registration period for presidential election after Raisi’s fatal helicopter crash
  • The election comes as Iran grapples with the aftermath of the May 19 crash
  • The five-day period will see those between the ages of 40 to 75 with at least a master’s degree register as potential candidates

TEHRAN: Iran opened a five-day registration period Thursday for hopefuls wanting to run in the June 28 presidential election to replace the late Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash earlier this month with seven others.
The election comes as Iran grapples with the aftermath of the May 19 crash, as well as heightened tensions between Tehran and the United States, and protests including those over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini that have swept the country.
While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 85, maintains final say over all matters of state, presidents in the past have bent the Islamic Republic of Iran toward greater interaction or increased hostility with the West.
The five-day period will see those between the ages of 40 to 75 with at least a master’s degree register as potential candidates. All candidates ultimately must be approved by Iran’s 12-member Guardian Council, a panel of clerics and jurists ultimately overseen by Khamenei. That panel has never accepted a woman, for instance, nor anyone calling for radical change within the country’s governance.
Raisi, a protege of Khamenei, won Iran’s 2021 presidential election after the Guardian Council disqualified all of the candidates with the best chance to potentially challenge him. That vote saw the lowest turnout in Iran’s history for a presidential election. That likely was a sign of voters’ discontent with both a hard-line cleric sanctioned by the US in part over his involvement in mass executions in 1988, and Iran’s Shiite theocracy over four decades after its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Who will run — and potentially be accepted — remains in question. The country’s acting president, Mohammad Mokhber, a previously behind-the-scenes bureaucrat, could be a front-runner, because he’s already been seen meeting with Khamenei. Also discussed as possible aspirants are former hard-line President Mohammad Ahmadinejad and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami — but whether they’d be allowed to run is another question.
The five-day registration period will close on Tuesday. The Guardian Council is expected to issue its final list of candidates within 10 days afterwards. That will allow for a shortened two-week campaign before the vote in late June.
The new president will take office while the country now enriches uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampers international inspections. Iran has armed Russia in its war on Ukraine, as well as launched a drone and missile attack on Israel amid the war in Gaza. Tehran also has continued arming proxy groups in the Middle East, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
Meanwhile, Iran’s economy has faced years of hardship over its collapsing rial currency. Widespread protests have swept the country, most recently over Amini’s death following her arrest over allegedly not wearing her mandatory headscarf to the liking of authorities, A UN panel says the Iranian government is responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.
Raisi is just the second Iranian president to die in office. In 1981, a bomb blast killed President Mohammad Ali Rajai in the chaotic days after the Islamic Revolution.


Egypt’s El-Sisi calls to ensure Gazans not ‘forcibly displaced’

Egypt’s El-Sisi calls to ensure Gazans not ‘forcibly displaced’
Updated 30 May 2024
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Egypt’s El-Sisi calls to ensure Gazans not ‘forcibly displaced’

Egypt’s El-Sisi calls to ensure Gazans not ‘forcibly displaced’
  • El-Sisi’s comments come after the Israeli army said it had gained “operational control” over the strategic Philadelphi corridor along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt

Beijing: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Thursday urged the international community to ensure Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are not displaced from their war-ravaged territory.
“I... call on the international community to immediately provide for long-term humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip and to end the Israeli siege,” El-Sisi told a forum of Arab leaders and Chinese officials in Beijing.
He also urged the international community to “stop any attempt at forcing Palestinians to forcibly flee their land.”
China is this week hosting El-Sisi and several other Arab leaders for a forum at which discussions on the war in Gaza were expected.
El-Sisi’s comments come after the Israeli army said Wednesday it had gained “operational control” over the strategic Philadelphi corridor along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
The corridor had served as a buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt, and Israeli troops patrolled it until 2005, when they were withdrawn as part of a broader disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
Its seizure comes weeks after Israeli forces took control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on May 7 as their ground assault on the far-southern Gaza city began.
El-Sisi on Thursday said there was “no pathway to peace and stability in the region” without a “comprehensive approach to the Palestinian cause.”
He called for a “serious and immediate commitment to the two-state solution and a recognition of the Palestinians’ legitimate right to an independent state.”
The Gaza war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,171 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


French PM Macron urges Abbas to ‘reform’ Palestinian Authority with ‘prospect of recognition’

French PM Macron urges Abbas to ‘reform’ Palestinian Authority with ‘prospect of recognition’
Updated 30 May 2024
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French PM Macron urges Abbas to ‘reform’ Palestinian Authority with ‘prospect of recognition’

French PM Macron urges Abbas to ‘reform’ Palestinian Authority with ‘prospect of recognition’
  • In a statement, Macron said France supports “a reformed and strengthened Palestinian Authority, able to carry out its responsibilities throughout the Palestinian territories"

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron urged Palestinian Authority chief Mahmud Abbas to “implement necessary reforms,” offering the “prospect of recognition of the state of Palestine” during a phone call Wednesday, his office said.

Macron “highlighted France’s commitment to building a common vision of peace with European and Arab partners, offering security guarantees for Palestinians and Israelis,” as well as “making the prospect of recognition of a state of Palestine part of a useful process,” Macron’s Elysee Palace said.
The readout of the call with the chief of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank follows Tuesday’s official recognition for a Palestinian state by fellow European nations Spain, Ireland and Norway, which drew ire from Israel.
Macron’s Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne earlier Wednesday accused France’s neighbors of “political positioning” ahead of June 9 European elections, rather than seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Macron had said Tuesday that he would be prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, but such a move should “come at a useful moment” and not be based on “emotion.”
France supports “a reformed and strengthened Palestinian Authority, able to carry out its responsibilities throughout the Palestinian territories, including in the Gaza Strip, for the benefit of the Palestinian people,” Macron told Abbas on Wednesday, according to the Elysee Palace readout.
Abbas’s office said in a statement that he expressed the Palestinian government’s commitment to “reform” during the talks with Macron.
He called on “European countries that have not recognized the state of Palestine to do so.”
Current fighting in Gaza, controlled by the PA’s rival Hamas, was sparked by the militant group’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel.
That attack resulted in the deaths of 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the Israeli army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,171 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Macron called civilian casualties “intolerable” and offered his “sincere condolences to the Palestinian people” for the bombing of a displaced people’s camp in Rafah in southern Gaza.
He told Abbas that Paris was “determined to work with Algeria and its partners on the UN Security Council” so the body “makes a strong statement on Rafah.”
Algeria’s draft resolution calls on Israel to immediately halt military action in Rafah.