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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Syrian Refugees Caught between Hate Speech and Dangerous Talks on Returns

Syrian Refugees
Syrian refugees stand on the balcony of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon. Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article has been translated from Arabic.

In recent months, demands have mounted in more than one host country, most notably Lebanon and Turkey, for the forced return of political refugees to Syria. At the same time, hate speech against refugees has increased in said countries at both the popular level and in the media, influenced by political rhetoric alluding to the burden on the host communities resulting from the Syrian exodus. This hate speech has revolved around returning refugees to non-conflict areas under the control of the Syrian regime, or areas under the control of the opposition that could welcome the return of refugees who fear brutal reprisals from the regime upon their return.

Therefore, rhetoric, in anti-refugee discourse, of host countries’ inability to carry the burden of displaced Syrians has always come alongside talk of the refugees’ ability to return. The objective, meanwhile, is merely an attempt to undermine the humanitarian and relief nature of this issue, and to suggest that today there is nothing political or security-related that requires the displaced to remain outside their country.

Erasing the humanitarian and relief nature of the file opens the door to demanding that the displaced be forcibly returned to their country, which they [officials] could then claim would be a “safe return.” They could further claim the refugees’ presence in the host countries has become an “economic displacement” rather than asylum due to the to the security situation in Syria. Simply put, these allegations were simply pretexts used to justify future mass deportation plans.

The danger of returning to regime areas

Contrary to the claims of proponents of the anti-refugee rhetoric, it is an exaggeration to say circumstances are now ripe for the return of refugees to regime-controlled areas following an agreement with the authorities on their safe return. The Danish Immigration Service confirmed in a report entitled “Return to Syria” that most of the Syrian refugees who have returned to their country over the past five years have been subjected to violations by the Syrian regime. The report also stressed that the regime, which has called on refugees to return at several junctures, does not have a clear or declared policy regarding refugees’ return, which exposes them to serious violations upon their return.

For example, officers and branches of Syrian security can make decisions regarding refugees returning to Syria, making it possible for them to extort refugees for certain financial gains. Even refugees who were neither wanted by the security services nor involved in previous security incidents have been subject to extortion by the Syrian security services upon their return to their country. For this reason, the Danish report indicates that the number of refugees returning to Syria is declining annually due to a lack trust in the Syrian security services following all the violations that returning refugees have been subjected to.

Human Rights Watch has published a report entitled “Life Like Death: The Return of Syrian Refugees from Lebanon and Jordan,” in which it documents the testimonies of 65 displaced Syrians who returned to their country between 2017 and 2021. Among these 65 testimonies, the report counted 21 cases of arbitrary arrests and detentions, 13 cases of torture, three cases of kidnapping, five cases of extrajudicial killing, in addition to 17 cases of forced disappearance and sexual violence. For these reasons, refugee and migrant researcher Nadia Hardman noted in the report that “the horrific accounts of torture, forced disappearance and abuse suffered by refugees returning to Syria should make it clear that Syria is not safe to return. Large-scale violations of property rights and other economic hardships also make a sustained return impossible for many.”

In short, due to these security risks, the areas under the Syrian regime’s control cannot be considered safe areas for the return of refugees, even if the regime formally agrees to reconciliations with the returning displaced. It should be noted that a number of reports have documented violations by the Syrian regime of settlement and reconciliation agreements it concluded with its opponents in areas under its control by arresting and prosecuting them in the wake of the settlements.

Opposition areas are unable to absorb refugees

Contrary to the assertions of anti-refugee rhetoric, which is pushing for their return, the opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria are incapable of absorbing millions of refugees, who are afraid to return to regime-controlled areas. Since the northwestern region of Syria fell out of the regime’s control in 2014, the poverty rates in these areas have increased from 76 per cent to 87 per cent in 2019.

Out of 1,051 local communities (towns, villages and districts), 941 local communities are unable to secure basic food needs. The figures also indicate that 80 per cent of families in these areas rely on informal loans and debts to secure their basic needs, while 56 per cent of them are forced to send their children to work. In addition, 22 per cent are forced reduce the size of their meals, while 10 per cent of families are driven to selling their property. Furthermore, 85 per cent of Syrian families residing in the northwestern regions depend on unstable daily work to secure their needs.

In addition, the northern Syria regions suffer from instabilities resulting from the deterioration of the Turkish lira’s value as markets in these regions rely on the Turkish currency to trade and save. At the same time, these areas suffer from high rates of inflation due to the depreciation of the Turkish lira as well as the global rise in the prices of basic goods. Thus, the concurrence of these factors has led to a decline in the value of salaries and purchasing power, which has opened the door to a major humanitarian crisis in the northern Syrian region. These developments reflect the fragility of the local economy in the areas under the control of the armed opposition which are incapable of absorbing the millions of Syrian refugees who are currently in the host countries.

It should be noted that Syria’s northern regions controlled by the opposition also suffer from demographic pressures that make them unable to absorb refugees returning from the host countries, given the presence of about 6 million internally displaced persons within these areas. In addition, these regions are burdened by about 1.5 million civilians living in displacement camps, as well as by the loss of 5,487 vital facilities, including the most prominent hospitals, schools and universities in these regions. Furthermore, 60 per cent of the neighborhoods of these areas have in past years been subjected to bombing by the regime that, resulting in damage that affects their capacity to absorb the population.

Measures towards forcible return

Currently, developments in the Syrian refugee file are accelerating in several host countries, such as Turkey and Lebanon. Turkey, for example, has begun adjusting its position regarding the Syrian refugee file through measures that restrict refugees’ presence in the country, forcing them to return to Syria. These measures recently coincided with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s talk of plans to return about 1 million Syrians to opposition-controlled areas in Syria, as well as with the escalation of hate speech against refugees in the media and in popular circles. In Lebanon, deliberations aimed at developing a plan for the gradual return of Syrian refugees to their country are also accelerating, taking advantage of narratives that promote the ability of refugees to return to areas outside the conflict zones in Syria.

All these attempts today fail to consider the complex security conditions inside Syria, which will expose the refugees to great dangers if they return to the areas under the control of the Syrian regime. They also fail to consider the harsh economic conditions experienced by most of the areas under the control of the opposition, making it impossible for these areas to absorb the large number of refugees that Erdogan is trying to expel. Therefore, these attempts contradict international norms and conventions, which are supposed to prevent the forced return of these refugees to Syria before the establishment of political and security conditions that are conducive to their voluntary return.

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