Back to Syria?

Few ways for refugees to return safely

The conflict in Syria may have moved on to a less confrontational phase, but the war is far from over. There are still instances of violence in many parts of the country, including Idlib in the north. In others, people lack the most basic of necessities. The idea of returning, for many who have fled, is fraught with danger. Those associated with the opposition, whether they belong to it or not, remain at high risk of persecution and arrest. Many things stand between today and a time when Syrians can return in safety.

View over the mountains separating Lebanon and Syria

“There is no country to live in better than Syria. I miss my country. But I don’t trust the regime. I fear retention, killing, I fear death.”

Mohamad Harba, a man from Qusayr near the Syrian-Lebanese border, lives in the Lebanese city of Tripoli with his wife and four kids. Like many other Syrians in Lebanon, today hosting more refugees per capita than any other country in the world, he is reluctant to returning home.

“Even if the regime issues a general amnesty, we don’t dare to return for fear of being murdered, arrested or jailed,” he says.

Most Syrians attempting to go back, not least young men, fear getting arrested or drafted into the army. Military service is mandatory for all Syrian men between 18 and 42, who in times of war may get called back at any time, even after having completed their initial duty of 18-21 months. Students or those who have health problems are exempted, but only until they graduate or recover. The only way to avoid service is to pay the high sum of around 6,500$, something few can afford.

“Even if the regime issues a general amnesty, we don’t dare to return for fear of being murdered, arrested or jailed.”

“Some people who are wanted for the military service pay a bribe in order to stay in Syria, or they stick to their areas and avoid moving around inside the country,” says Harba.

Across another of Syria’s borders, in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, lives Ahmad Helmi. He was detained in nine different prisons in Syria before fleeing to Turkey, and just like many Syrians in Lebanon, he is fearful of going back.

“I don’t want to return to undergo all types of torture. Physical, sexual and psychological,” he says.

It was only after trying for a long time to sustain his non-violent activism in Syria that he sought refuge in Turkey, after having been shot in the face during a peaceful protest. One of his friends, a young woman who decided to not leave Syria, was recently arrested for the third time and then disappeared; another friend, a doctor who also did non-violent activism, died under torture five months ago, only three weeks after his return.

“Once the system is changed, I will be the first person to come back,” says Helmi.

The cousin of Harba also disappeared after returning to Syria from Lebanon.

“First, we totally lost contact with him. One year later we were officially communicated about his death. He had been jailed and killed, even though he had not done any political activities before,” says Harba.

Lebanon’s former minister of state for refugee affairs, Mouin Merhebi, said in an interview that 20 Syrian returnees from Lebanon had been killed since June 2018, but he had no concrete evidence supporting his statement. Accessing information about the situation for those who return is difficult, which makes many Syrians even more discouraged about going back.

Basmeh w Zeitooneh, an organisation working with refugees in Lebanon, issued a report in March voicing the concerns of 180 Syrians. It says that people who attempt to return, especially those belonging to the opposition, run the risk of persecution, detention, sudden disappearances and extrajudicial killings, as well as forced military service. Adding to that, it says, there are no systematic measures for safety and security undertaken by humanitarian organisations or authorities at the borders.

People who attempt to return, especially those belonging to the opposition, run the risk of persecution, detention, sudden disappearances and extrajudicial killings, as well as forced military service.

The story of Layla, included in a recent report on return from Sawa for Development and Aid, describes other difficulties. Layla, who appears with first name only, lives with her four young children in a small tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; her husband was detained in 2012 when trying to cross the Syrian border. When she went to Syria last summer to check on her family’s house near Homs, someone had taken over their property.

“I walked up and knocked, thinking about all of the happy memories in that house. But someone answered the door, and before I could finish explaining, they shouted at me to leave. They slammed the door in my face. It happened so fast.”

Layla, who had already received a five-year re-entry ban for overstaying her residency permit when crossing the Lebanese borders, was hit with unpaid utility bills for the house in Syria, amounting to the equivalent of 2,700$ for phone and electricity during the years she had been in Lebanon. She managed to return to Lebanon despite the re-entry ban, through taking an informal route across the mountains. But she’s still reeling from the dispossession of her own home, says the report, and feels helpless because of the huge economic burden put on her shoulders.

“Someone answered the door, and before I could finish explaining, they shouted at me to leave.”

The issue of return has quickly moved to the top of many agendas, including that of politicians in Lebanon and other countries hosting Syrian refugees. Close to one million Syrians are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, and perhaps 500,000 live in the country unregistered. The country is deeply divided on the issue of refugees’ return: the leading bloc, with Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Movement and their allies, maintain good relations with the Syrian government and call for a quick return; the opposition, including the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party, are adverse to the Syrian regime and reluctant to pushing the issue politically. When the third Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region was held on March 12-14, the Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil was absent, instead quoted saying that “these conferences fund the stay of refugees, and we want their return to be funded.”

Nasser Yassin, co-chair of the AUB4Refugees initiative at the American University of Beirut, says that both the EU and the international community need to act for political solutions in Syria, through addressing the root causes of the conflict.

“The majority of refugees want to return to Syria, but they will only do so when they trust that they will be safe,” he says.

Writing on a wall in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon

Last year, Russia launched an initiative for the return of Syrian refugees. Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun said that his country would organise a “gradual voluntary return” in accordance with the initiative; in response, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated that such a return needed to be “safe and dignified”. The initiative did not get the support of the EU and the United States, who wanted to see the UNHCR monitoring the process to guarantee returnees’ safety. At the Brussels conference in March, the issue of return ended up getting only secondary importance: it only appeared in the 21st point out of 41 in the final declaration, and did not reflect the extensive concerns addressed by NGOs and Syrian refugees themselves about protection and safety.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated that such any return needs to be “safe and dignified”.

Tarek, a 30-year-old man who prefers to use his first name only, was pushed to leave Lebanon in 2016 and return to his hometown of Jaramana near Damascus. He holds a masters in accounting, allowing him to work in a local firm; his wife is a pharmacist, who was not able to work in her field while living in Lebanon as a refugee.

“We both earn 200$ per month now, which is not enough to meet our basic needs, especially after the birth of our baby girl,” says Tarek.

He calls the rise of living expenses that he is seeing in Syria ‘obscene’.

“And the situation has only become worse due to internal displacement to cities like Jaramana.”

During winter, the family’s house was almost not liveable, because of the high costs of keeping it heated. A gas jar now costs the equivalent of 15$: added up, it accounts to a substantial amount of their entire income.

The actual formalities for families returning from Lebanon to Syria remain unclear, including procedures at the border. There is no individual body in charge of the process: at the moment Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian regime, organises part of it through its local offices in Lebanon, along with, on a minor scale, municipalities in the Bekaa Valley. A little-known party called the Lebanese Promise Party has organised protests calling for Syrians to leave the country and is making field visits encouraging them to return.

“Humanitarian actors and NGOs should provide guidance about the exit formalities so that people can make conscious and well-informed choices about staying in Lebanon or going back home,” says Rouba Mhaissen, founder of Sawa for Development and Aid.

“There are cases for example when the names of potential returnees are being sent to the Syrian authorities, who then decide whether to accept a civilian returnee or not,” she says.

“It seems there are no real political solutions or reconciliation plans on the table.”

In Lebanon, the General Security authorities are involved in collecting and sending these names across the border, even though they lack information about which specific areas in Syria are secure for returnees. The criteria, says Mhaissen, for who is allowed to return or not are not publically shared.

Yassin from the American University in Beirut says that an objective body monitoring the returns and making sure that returnees are protected is needed.

“This is particularly important for the current situation in Syria, because it seems there are no real political solutions or reconciliation plans on the table,” he says.

As for now, many refugees have no opportunities to return in safety. The long and divisive quarrels over the issue in Lebanon reflect just how much the issue has become part of the political game. Neither in Beirut nor elsewhere in the region has a specific plan been put in place, much less been endorsed by the international community, which is so far taking a rather passive stance. And with only slow transformations of the situation in Syria, lacking any real and substantial change, a situation where families can return protected seems rather distant.

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