Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Turkey (File)
The French and German envoys to Syria have noted the reluctance of more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees to return to the country, citing the Assad regime’s repression.
Bruno Foucher and Georg Birgelen wrote in Lebanon’s Daily Star:
The main barrier is the climate of fear and injustice in Syria. Since the conflict began, the regime arrested and disappeared around 70,000 Syrians. These arrests, torture and killings continue until this very day. Detention by the Syrian security agencies is so arbitrary that no refugee can ultimately be sure of a safe return.
They know that structural injustices await them: from seized property to utility fees for years spent abroad, from punitive penalties for expired personal documents to a biased justice system that will not defend their rights.
Less than 40,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2018, as the Assad regime reoccupied all of southern Syria, including the East Ghouta area near Damascus.
Amin Awad, the regional director of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said in December that 250,000 refugees could return this year. However, he noted significant obstacles such as uncertainty over documentation and the status of homes and property.
“Then there are issues related to conscription, there are issues related to amnesty for those who deserted the army. These are drivers that would basically keep people away, they are obstacles,” Awad said.
Foucher and Birgelen noted UNHCR surveys of refugees in Lebanon that, while 83% want to go home eventually, only 5% plan to do so in the next year.
The refugees’ fears are mirrored by those of Syrians displaced inside the country. Many have preferred to go to the opposition-held northwest — where more than 3 million people reside, about 20% of Syria’s remaining population — rather than return home.
In the Rukban camp near the Jordanian border, more than 90% wish to leave but, according to the UN’s Reena Ghelani, “All of those consulted, regardless of their profile or tribal affiliation, have concerns related to the situation at the destination.”
Assad Regime “Must Respect Right to Return”
The UNHCR said last week that it should have a more substantial presence inside Syria to observe and help refugees.
“Without that, there is an element of confidence that is missing in the return of the people,” said UNHCR head Filippo Grandi.
The French and German envoys called for meaningful steps by the Assad regime
Damascus must respect the right to return as well as housing, land and property rights of refugees. Damascus must credibly end arbitrary arrests and prosecution. And Damascus must stop restricting the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees so that UNHCR can freely move within Syria to access and protect all returnees.