The political landscape in the Arab region has experienced significant changes in recent months, including the Arab League's decision to lift the freeze on Syria's membership after 12 years and the participation of Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad in the Jeddah summit. The issue of Syrian refugees has been a prominent topic on the agenda of many countries. However, the controversy surrounding the return of Syrian refugees remains a contentious subject. This article aims to examine the safety concerns related to the return of Syrian refugees, explore the differing viewpoints of various entities, and assess the risks that prevent their repatriation.
Controversy over the Return of Syrian Refugees
The notion of a safe return for Syrian refugees should be carefully evaluated, considering the extensive evidence of ongoing violations and insecurity within the country. International efforts should prioritize the protection and well-being of refugees and focus on facilitating voluntary returns only when basic protection conditions are met.
The Jordanian Perspective
In Jordan, the issue of Syrian refugees has been prioritized under the "step by step" initiative proposed by King Abdullah bin Al Hussein. While the initiative emphasizes the need for voluntary and safe return, the Jordanian government has not provided a concrete plan. The government acknowledges the necessity of initiating the voluntary return process promptly but lacks detailed proposals.
The Lebanese Perspective
In Lebanon, a divisive public discourse has emerged regarding the return of Syrian refugees, who number more than 2.8 million. Many blame them for the country's economic collapse and argue that they should leave now that the war in Syria has ended. Former President Michel Aoun proposed a plan to return 15,000 Syrian refugees per month to unspecified "safe" areas, while politicians and public figures exploit the notion of safety to support and expedite deportations.
The Turkish Perspective
In Turkey, with the previously intense electoral competition between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the issue of Syrian refugees has become a point of contention. President Erdogan has presented a plan to establish a "safe area" in northern Syria and return a million refugees, acknowledging that the current situation in Syria is not entirely safe. The opposition, on the other hand, supports the return of Syrians under temporary protection to "safe" areas in cooperation with international institutions and the Syrian regime, but their stance has evolved during the election campaign.
The Danish Perspective
Denmark has seen right-wing campaigns advocating for the return of Syrian refugees granted asylum in 2015. These campaigns use advertisements and videos showcasing tourist destinations in Syria to argue for the safety of the country. The Danish Refugee Council has assessed the security situation in specific areas as safe, leading to decisions to withdraw the asylum of thousands of refugees. However, the official repatriation process faces challenges due to strained Danish-Syrian relations and refugees seeking asylum in other countries.
Risks Preventing the Return of Syrian Refugees
The end of active armed conflict does not guarantee safety for those considering returning to Syria. Human Rights Watch reports reveal that individuals who return are subjected to investigations by the regime's security apparatus, including interrogations, arrests, torture, threats, and sexual violence. Interviews with returned refugees and their relatives confirm that the same violations they fled from, such as persecution, assault, arbitrary arrest, illegal detention, and torture, persist upon their return. Fear of being targeted by the regime lingers even for those not facing immediate threats, making life in Syria extremely challenging.
Amnesty International, journalists, and the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria have also documented arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearances, and executions in Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees affirms that Syria is not safe and emphasizes the need for basic protection conditions before facilitating returns. Amnesty International has documented cases of major violations against returnees, including children, such as rape, physical violence, arbitrary detention, and torture.
Is Erdogan's "Safe Zone" Truly Safe?
President Erdogan's pledge to establish a "safe zone" in northern Syria and return a million refugees faces significant obstacles. The security situation in northern Syria remains unstable, with continued air and artillery bombardment by Russian and regime forces. Areas controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) also pose threats to returnees. Additionally, the lack of services and job opportunities hinders the successful reintegration of refugees, leaving millions facing dire living conditions and unemployment.
Legal challenges complicate the implementation of Turkey's plan, both in Turkey and northern Syria. The return of a million refugees presents problems for Turkey, and it may also prompt European countries to pursue repatriation. Land ownership, potential demographic changes, and financing further complicate the project's feasibility.
Project to Document Violations Against Returning Refugees
In 2022, the Voices of the Displaced Syrians Organization, the Center for Operations and Policy, and the Middle East Institute launched a research project to document the violations experienced by refugees returning to Syria. The project surveyed 300 returnees from different areas of control in Syria, assessing the results against UN protection thresholds. The report highlights violations in physical, psychosocial, material safety, and legal aspects. It reveals that a significant portion of those claiming voluntary return faced coercion and factors influencing their decision.
Returnees reported experiences of violence, harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention, and persecution based on origin, illegal departure, or seeking asylum abroad. The study also indicates severe restrictions on movement throughout Syria due to military checkpoints, anarchy, and concerns about the overall security situation.
The Security Situation in Syria during 2023
Despite research reports and UN assessments indicating that Syria remains unsafe, adopting countries continue to reinforce this narrative. However, even this year, with the decline of the conflict, the situation remains unchanged. According to the 2023 edition of the Human Rights Watch annual report, Syria continues to witness deteriorating conditions regarding rights, security, and human rights across different areas of control.
In the government-controlled areas of Syria, Syrian security forces continue to arbitrarily detain, use forced disappearance, and mistreat individuals, including children, people with disabilities, the elderly, returning refugees, and individuals in reclaimed territories who have signed so-called reconciliation agreements. Authorities also persist in confiscating properties and unlawfully restricting Syrians from returning to their original areas.
In north-western Syria, random attacks by Russian and Syrian military forces in Idlib and western Aleppo persist, targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. Simultaneously, according to the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the armed group "Hayat Tahrir al-Sham" continues its arbitrary raids and detentions of activists, humanitarian workers, civilians, and those expressing critical opinions. The report also documents the ongoing monopolization of the fuel market and other services, as well as property seizures by armed groups.
In north-eastern Syria, Turkish airstrikes and reciprocal shelling by local armed groups and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue. Earlier in the previous year, the Biden administration announced that 900 U.S. soldiers would remain in Syria.
The report reveals that the SDF has conducted mass arrests against civilians, including activists, journalists, and teachers. At least 16 activists and media workers were reportedly detained under the pretext of "spying," according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Considering the various indicators and reports issued by human rights organizations, it is evident that the situation in Syria does not meet the United Nations' standards for the return of refugees. There are several risks that confront them upon entering the country.
Results of the Turkish Presidential Elections
The second round of the Turkish presidential elections concluded on Sunday, May 28, with the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the leader of the Republican People's Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as the candidates. Erdogan won a new five-year term with 52.09% of the votes, while Kilicdaroglu received 47.91%, after 99.17% of the votes were counted.