What We Feared Would Happen to Returning Syrian Refugees Has Come to Pass
August 23, 2019
Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a regular blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS features this series in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
Since March 2011, 11.8 million Syrians have been driven from their homes, both refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). In a report released on August 15th, The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), an independent, non-partisan human rights agency, confirmed one of the greatest fears of Syrian refugees. It documents the disappearance of at least 638 refugees after their forcible return to Syria. Its title, “The Syrian Regime Continues to Pose a Violent Barbaric Threat and Syrian Refugees Should Never Return to Syria,” summarizes its principal finding and recommendation.
Many reports have highlighted the risks to forcible returnees in Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad now controls most of the country, but continues to pose a grave danger to refugees and IDPs. It is pursuing retaliatory measures against many refugees as soon as they set foot in Syria. This has been the case for most of the refugees forced to return from Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.
Six major international charities reported in February that hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Europe were at risk of being returned because of territorial gains made by the Assad regime, coupled with growing anti-refugee rhetoric in host countries.
The SNHR report addresses the most prominent human rights violations committed by the regime against refugees, including arrest, enforced disappearance, and death following torture. In particular, it documents 1,916 arrests, including of 219 children and 157 women (adult female), who returned to Syria from countries of asylum or residence between 2014 and August of this year. According to SNHR, 638 suffered forcible disappearance, and 15 of the forcibly returned died as the result of torture, including 11 from Lebanon.
SNHR reports that arrests of the returning refugees wanted by security forces occurred immediately “after the returnee’s name and passport were examined,” despite having been previously assured of a safe return by Syrian officials. These arrests occurred at the Al-MASNAA border crossing with Lebanon, the Kasab crossing with Turkey, and the Nasib crossing with Jordan.
The SNHR report stated that most IDPs have returned as a result of attacks by regime forces, Russian aggression and harsh living conditions. It reported:
Areas outside the control of the Syrian regime continue to come under a barrage of daily aerial bombardment that has barely ceased. Throughout the eight years of the Syrian conflict, this bombardment has been and is still indifferent to any of the international law rules, rendering populated areas, hospitals, schools, and markets vulnerable to bombing; consequently, the rates of risk of death and displacement are again increased by these factors, as well as by the rates of destruction of homes, shops and cars.
Refugees, in turn, increasingly suffer from declining levels of “support and services” in host communities, “high levels of threat and racism” and scapegoating “for problems over which they have no control, such as water and air pollution, elections and garbage.”
Last month Lebanon deported 16 Syrians, most of whom had applied for asylum with the United Nations. Lebanese authorities estimate that 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, while UNHCR estimates there are less than one million. Lebanese officials have reiterated their demand that Syrians be repatriated, using the pretext that the war is over in several areas and the Syrian regime has regained control.
The SNHR called on the UN Security Council and the United Nations to find a “just political solution that preserves the rights of these displaced persons” and to help stop the “systematic looting and social and demographic changes being carried out by the Syrian government and regime.”
SNHR’s director, Fadl Abdul Ghani, said in a statement, that it is not possible to predict what will happen to refugees upon their return to Syria. “The Syrian state under the current regime has become a mafia,” he said. “We warn the refugees of the danger of return.”
“Hassan M,” a returnee interviewed by the author, said that Syrian officials confiscated his passport upon his return from Germany so that he would not be able to leave the country again. They also told him that he would soon be summoned for questioning by the government and they accused him of associating with opposition figures in Europe. He fears what the coming days may hold for him.
Recent reports of the arrest and torture of returnees came as the Syrian army gradually took control over most of the country, sparking a debate among European politicians about whether the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Europe could return home. This idea has been championed by right-wing and nationalists in the West, who have turned public opinion against the refugees.
The international community faces a real test. Refugee-hosting countries must abide by their obligations under international law, most prominently the responsibility not to return refugees to perilous conditions and, in particular, to predation by the Assad regime. These countries should also consider temporary protection mechanisms, as an alternative to forcing Syrians to return to a situation that poses a grave danger to them.
August 23, 2019
More in the Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection blog series.
CMS Executive Director Donald Kerwin tells Syria TV, produced in West Germany, how he met Omar al-Muqdad and how he’s been a vital part of many US communities.