Over the past year, governments have started to openly contemplate – and on occasion, implement – the return of refugees to Syria. This discourse is fuelled by a range of political pressures, including anti-immigration rhetoric in the West, the territorial decline of groups such as the so-called Islamic State, and the establishment of so-called de-escalation zones within Syria. However, the security situation remains acute, and the country’s infrastructure is in tatters. The safe and dignified return of refugees cannot, as yet, be guaranteed.
A new report, released by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and a coalition of other humanitarian organizations, warns that the situation in Syria is far from safe. Furthermore, the report demonstrates that the prevailing interest in returns is undermining the safety of refugees in neighboring countries, as well as impacting the protection that they are offered within Europe. Until safe and dignified returns can be guaranteed, states must refrain from framing returns as a solution. Doing so threatens lives.
Moreover, the report notes that “an excessive focus on the return of refugees is also diverting attention from commitments made by the international community” to support refugees and host nations. A failure to honour these pledges will impact on poor host communities, and “increase the likelihood of unsafe or coerced returns in the coming year.”
The conflict in Syria is now entering its eighth year. More than half of the pre-war population have been displaced: more than six million within Syria, five million are refugees in neighbouring countries, and a million have fled to Europe. While regime forces have made significant gains in recent months, peace is but a distant prospect.
“Many parts of Syria continue to be torn apart by conflict. Fierce fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib recently forced a quarter of a million people to flee. This is on top of a million people already displaced inside the province,” wrote Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the NRC. “Further south, in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the misery of 400,000 starved Syrians has spiked to an unimaginable level.”
Both warzones are among the so-called de-escalation zones, that were meant to see an increase in aid and reconstruction to allow for the eventual return of displaced communities. In Egeland’s words, “they have witnessed only death and destruction.”
“In Syria’s neighbouring countries, the push to return refugees has manifested itself in closed borders, deportations and forced or involuntary returns” – Dangerous ground: Syria’s refugees face an uncertain future, report
The response of neighbouring countries
While many Syrians did return home last year, a far greater number fled – or attempted to. The NRC’s report found that “for every Syrian (interally displaced or refugee) who returned home in 2017, there were three newly displaced. The numbers for refugees alone are equally stark: while 66,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2017, Turkish and Jordanian authorities prevented nearly 300,000 people who were trying to flee Syria from entering their countries.”
Of the 30, 000-50, 000 Syrian refugees denied access to Jordan, the UN estimates that four out of five are women or children. They face the harsh conditions of winter with little support: there was only on delivery of aid in a six-month period.
In addition to border closures, the governments of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have returned asylum seekers to Syria. In some cases documented by aid groups in Jordan, Syrians were not afforded the opportunity to challenge their deportation in court, access legal advice or review their deportation orders.
The response of European countries
Government officials and political parties in Europe – including in Germany – are discussing or advocating for the deportation of refugees. This follows two years of hardening European policies, from the construction of walls to deals such as the EU-Turkey Deal and Joint Way Forward, and has a direct impact on the security of refugees in their new countries.
“Germany, like the U.N., does not consider it safe for refugees to go back to Syria,” wrote Miriam Berger for Refugees Deeply. “But since March 2016, the country has provided most Syrians with this temporary form of protection and renewed it annually…Just 0.6 percent of Syrians received subsidiary protection in 2015. That rose in 2016 to 41 percent and last year to 55 percent, according to Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.”
If the rhetoric of return is affecting the protection offered to refugees, a knock-on effect will be felt on their ability to integrate and begin the next chapter of their lives. Future return should not affect the security or rights offered to refugees in their host countries.
“About one-third of all homes and schools, and about half of all medical facilities, have been damaged or destroyed in the conflict.” – Dangerous ground: Syria’s refugees face an uncertain future, report
The situation faced by returnees
Those who return to Syria – voluntarily, or as victims of refoulement – face acute risks. Large numbers of unexploded landmines left by Islamic State combatants are causing 50 to 70 civilian casualties a week in Raqqa alone, as tens of thousands of civilians return to the city. Even areas where there is respite from conflict still, therefore, pose a significant danger to civilians.
Syria’s infrastructure is in tatters. Homes, schools, hospitals and water systems have been destroyed; explosive hazards litter the country; and the destruction of housing, land and property records creates an additional obstacle for those wishing to return home. More than one in ten IDPs interviewed by the NRC said that, to their knowledge, their previous residency was currently occupied – with their permission or not. The UN Humanitarian Needs Overview found that looting has taken place in over two-thirds of assessed sub-districts. Furthermore, almost half of IDPs interviewed by the NRC in southern Syria reported that they knew their original homes were either damaged beyond repair or destroyed.
It is clear that until a stable, just and sustainable political and security solution is found, and mass reconstruction can begin, Syria is not a safe country for returns. For now, unqualified discussions of return can only be detrimental to the status of refugees and displaced Syrians.
The image is of a camp in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon.