During recent months, in violation of international conventions, thousands of Syrian refugees have been forcibly returned to Syria from neighboring countries.
In Lebanon, for example, in the past four months 2,731 refugees have been sent home, while in Turkey hundreds of refugees have been deported. The argument of the Lebanese and Turkish authorities is that Syria has become safe, because the Assad regime has recaptured most of the territory it had lost and an increasing number of refugees and internally displaced Syrians are going home. Even in Europe, Danish and Swedish immigration services have recently changed their assessments of the situation in Syria, arguing that security conditions in some parts of Syria no longer pose a threat to asylum seekers.
This argument is highly questionable. Syria continues to be plagued by conflict and insecurity, particularly for returnees. While many Syrians have indeed returned, far larger numbers have fled their homes as a result of conflict and persecution. Figures from 2017, for example, show that for every internally displaced or refugee Syrian who returned, three were newly displaced. In June and July 2019, 190,000 internally displaced Syrians returned home, while over three times that number were displaced between January and July.
The claims that Syria is safe for returnees willfully ignore a broad range of policies put in place by the Assad regime that effectively blocks their return. One example is mandatory military conscription, which has deterred men between the ages of eighteen and 42 from returning. Young men compulsorily recruited from areas “reconciled” with the regime under Russian guarantees are sent to the front lines to die, while those who refuse military service before the six months stipulated by Russian guarantees are abducted and disappear. Another example is the 2012 counterterrorism law, which is being used by the regime to silence potential opponents, including civic activists, charged with “promoting terrorist activities.”
Reports indicate that hundreds of refugees have been detained and then disappeared by regime forces upon returning to Syria. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has estimated that hundreds of civilians have been detained by government forces since June 2019, mainly in Der‘a, Damascus, Rural Damascus, and Homs Governorates. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) recently documented the disappearance of 638 returnees, fifteen of whom reportedly died under torture, though many analysts estimate the numbers to be much larger. SNHR has also detailed a wide effort of enforced conscription as well as a high rate of detention of returnees.
These findings point to a trend in Syria today. As the armed conflict appears to be winding down, the state has intensified its repression of the civilian population, both as a collective punishment tool and as a preemptive measure against potential political dissent. While the conflict did weaken Syria’s military, the country’s security services have only expanded their reach.
Security clearances and vetting mechanisms have been employed by the security agencies to block return. Currently, approval for the return of refugees and internally displaced populations is carried out by Syria’s National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s intelligence agencies. For example, in Darayya, a town near Damascus, refugees or internally displaced Syrians who wish to return have to apply for permission through the local council. Requests are then forwarded to the National Security Bureau, and if they are approved applicants receive a monthly residence card. Yet even under such controlled conditions, many applications have been rejected. Residents with valid residency cards have also reported being denied the right to remain in the city by militiamen at checkpoints.
A similar process exists for refugees in neighboring countries. Those in Lebanon, for instance, must submit requests to Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, which shares the names with Syria’s National Security Bureau, which decides whether to authorize returns. While hundreds have applied, only a fraction have been allowed back. For example, Qusayr, a city close to the Lebanese border and a former rebel stronghold in Homs Governorate, is the area of origin for around 5 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Even though the town was retaken by regime forces and Hezbollah in 2013, only a tenth of its residents have been allowed to return.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon face other obstacles, such as conditions in their areas of origin. Data provided in 2015 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicate that 21 percent of registered refugees in Lebanon come from Homs, 21 percent from Aleppo, and 14 percent from Rural Damascus Governorate. In other words, over half of the refugees in the country hail from governorates that have suffered major destruction and remain highly insecure. In the city of Homs, the destruction was estimated at almost $2.7 billion in March 2016. As for Aleppo, once the industrial heart of Syria, the destruction was estimated at $7.57 billion in February 2017.
Aside from the physical destruction of towns and cities, a range of services are in a dire state. Telecommunications are haphazard, electricity outages are frequent, and healthcare services are practically nonexistent. In some areas even the most basic of necessities, such as bread, are in severe shortage. For instance, residents of Rastan, in Homs Governorate, can only purchase bread from one operating bakery. That’s because even a year after the town’s “reconciliation” with the regime, damaged bakeries have not been rehabilitated. Meanwhile, those who manage to enter their areas of origin are not allowed to bring in construction material, which means that they are unable to rebuild their homes. The price of construction material is exorbitant and out of reach for most Syrians, while bribes are most often required to bring in such material.
Moreover, the regime will only allow reconstruction on its own terms, based on the regime’s priorities, not need. In Rural Damascus Governorate, for example, the regime favored the rehabilitation of Harasta in 2018. It has a population of almost 1,100 inhabitants, compared to Duma and ‘Arbin that have populations of around 13,000 and 41,000 inhabitants, respectively. This was mainly due to Harasta’s proximity to Damascus and the pro-regime sympathies of its current population. But even there, the regime has seemed more interested in rehabilitating state administrative services than it has public services. In Aleppo, it has favored eight areas in the western part of the city that had remained under government control throughout the conflict there.
Critically, even if reconstruction were to begin, changes to Syria’s legal framework suggest that the regime is actively working to complicate, or even deny, refugee returns. Under Law No. 10 of 2018 the dispossession of Syrians is an active regime policy. The legislation allows the state to designate any area in Syria for redevelopment, and consequently expropriate property owners who fail to provide “proof of ownership” within one month (later amended to one year) of such a designation. As reported by Human Rights Watch and other organizations, former residents are being prevented from returning to their homes under the pretext of reconstruction and redevelopment.
For example, reconstruction in Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs implemented under Law No. 10 has led to denying original residents their right of return and has ensured the transfer of their properties to regime cronies. Residents of Basatin al-Razi and Qaboun, both former opposition strongholds in the Damascus suburbs, have been forcibly dispossessed of their properties as a result of redevelopment activities. Low-cost housing for residents whose properties were expropriated is unlikely to be built. A similar story is unfolding in Hama, where there has also been significant destruction under the guise of reconstruction and redevelopment. Meanwhile, Darayya has been re-zoned under a new development plan issued recently and that includes the complete demolition of the city center.
Such developments are making war-induced demographic changes permanent and ensuring a “homogenous Syria,” as proclaimed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2014. With respect to the internally displaced, the regime has shown how it deals with them in the so-called Pioneers Camp in the village of Rasas in Suwayda Governorate, which hosts 5,000 Syrians displaced from Syria’s northeastern Jazira region. The camp is under heavy surveillance, with snipers ensuring the tight control of movement in and out of the camp. Only under special circumstances are the displaced permitted to leave. Usually, specialized transportation is arranged to take students from the camp to their schools. However, the facility lacks proper infrastructure, including space to house the displaced or a center for rehabilitation and psychological aid.
The pressure on Syrian refugees to return home is having a detrimental effect on the refugee population. Many Syrians are again risking their lives by migrating to Europe by sea, mostly through Turkey, despite their increasingly violent treatment by the Turkish Coast Guard. Greece is once again reporting an uptick in the numbers of refugees arriving on its shores, while the Turkish Coast Guard stopped over 100 boats and detained over 3,000 people in the single week between July 29 and August 4. These are the largest numbers since 2015, when the refugee crisis was at its height. Harassment is also pushing Syrians to risk their lives in the long trip from Lebanon on fishing boats, causing fatalities.
In spite of its affirmations to the contrary, the Syrian regime continues to put in place a web of legal, security, military, and social measures to prevent the return of refugees. Given that these measures began as early as 2012, showing longstanding intent, the international community and neighboring host countries should revisit their refugee repatriation policies. Only a political process can overturn the Syrian regime’s post-conflict plans for its population and its efforts to engage in demographic engineering. Otherwise, the regime will continue to use its postwar policies to abuse Syrians and impose new realities on the ground, maintaining Syria as an epicenter of instability in the region.