Refugees doubt pos­si­bil­ity of a peace­ful home­com­ing

Those who fled con­flict are scep­ti­cal of claims that it is safe to go back

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Martin Chulov

Each day Abu Ahmed, a Syr­ian mer­chant, hawks Qur’anic pam­phlets in cen­tral Beirut, with one eye out for a buyer and another for the po­lice.

He has been in the Le­banese cap­i­tal for the past six years, as war con­sumed his home­land, casting about a mil­lion refugees like him into ex­ile. But now, as the seven-year con­flict ap­proaches what many be­lieve to be an endgame, Abu Ahmed fears his mea­gre, but so far safe, ex­is­tence is in jeop­ardy.

The guns of in­sur­gency have largely been si­lenced in Syria’s cen­tre and south, and in their place politi­cians in Da­m­as­cus, as well as Le­banon, Jor­dan and Syria, are claim­ing with in­creas­ing ve­he­mence that a ru­ined coun­try from which at least 6 mil­lion peo­ple had fled is now a safe place to re­turn.

Few Syr­i­ans in Le­banon seem con­vinced. “I’ll serve my coun­try proudly and shed my blood for it with a smile on my face, but not like this,” said Abu Ahmed, 41, who hails from the former op­po­si­tion strong­hold of Ghouta. “Not for this chaos. We can’t go back [and risk] neigh­bours’ petty re­venge. They snitch on you and call you a traitor, and the next thing you know you’re lan­guish­ing in pri­son – for noth­ing. My town is filled with regime forces and thugs, how do they ex­pect me to re­turn?”

In­ter­na­tional donors, aid work­ers and diplo­mats are also wary of the in­sis­tence that Syria is safe – and of the mo­tives be­hind the claims. They say the rel­a­tive quiet in Syria should not be con­fused for en­dur­ing or­der, and en- treaties from Bashar al-As­sad are un­likely to mean a warm home­com­ing.

Through­out the war Le­banon’s po­lit­i­cal class have been di­vided over Syria, with roughly half of its par­lia­ment op­posed to the Syr­ian leader and the rest stri­dently be­hind him. With As­sad now in a win­ning po­si­tion, thanks to back­ing from Rus­sia and Iran, some in Le­banon are try­ing to re­po­si­tion them­selves. Mean­while, those who re­mained al­lied are now read­ily do­ing As­sad’s bid­ding. Es­tab­lish­ing a view that se­cu­rity – and for­give­ness – await re­turnees is a cen­tral mes­sage.

“We in­vite all friendly na­tions to han­dle the Syria is­sue real­is­ti­cally,” said the Le­banese for­eign min­is­ter, Ge­bran Bas­sil. “It is not in any­one’s in­ter­est for Le­banon’s econ­omy to col­lapse un­der heavy mi­gra­tion. The cir­cum­stances in Syria have changed and many ar­eas are safe. There is no rea­son for refugees to stay.”

In Jor­dan, whose monarch, King Ab­dul­lah, op­posed As­sad early in the war, the mood has also shifted. The wel­come given refugees as the coun­try un­rav­elled in 2012 has been re­placed by ris­ing hos­til­ity and forced de­por­ta­tions. Last week Ab­dul­lah told the UN high com­mis­sioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi: “The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must face its re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards the host­ing coun­tries, and at the top of them is Jor­dan. The Syr­ian cri­sis has taken a toll on Jor­da­nian in­fra­struc­ture, econ­omy, ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor and well­be­ing.”

Many who have mon­i­tored the cri­sis, in which at least 600,000 peo­ple have been killed and more than half the pre­war pop­u­la­tion dis­placed, say claims of a trans­for­ma­tion in Syria are false.

“Syr­i­ans should be able to de­cide whether they

feel safe enough to re­turn to Syria,” said a former mem­ber of the UK gov­ern­ment’s Syria team. “Remember why Syr­i­ans fled their homes in the first place: bar­rel bombs, be­siege­ment, star­va­tion, de­ten­tion and tor­ture … To force them to re­turn may be sign­ing their death war­rants.”

Cen­tral to Le­banon’s claims are that the num­ber of refugees has taken a toll on its mori­bund econ­omy and taken jobs from the lo­cal work­force as un­em­ploy­ment has also been grow­ing. Hu­man Rights Watch said the claims were not sup­ported by ev­i­dence and refugees were be­ing scape­goated for short­com­ings in Le­banon’s econ­omy that pre­dated the war.

“The war in Syria has cer­tainly hurt Le­banon’s econ­omy be­cause of the slow­down in trade, but that’s not at­trib­ut­able to the refugee cri­sis,” said HRW’s Le­banon re­searcher, Bas­sam Khawaja. Refugees have put a strain on in­fra­struc­ture in Le­banon, from schools to waste man­age­ment, but the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has poured in $5bn of aid since 2011. And refugees spend­ing money on ev­ery­thing from rent to food in Le­banon has strength­ened the econ­omy.

“Neigh­bour­ing gov­ern­ments can claim that Syria is safe all they want, that doesn’t make it a fact,” said Khawaja. “As long as refugees have well-founded fears of death or per­se­cu­tion in­side Syria, then it’s il­le­gal for host coun­tries to force or co­erce them to re­turn.”

On Beirut’s Hamra Street, Umm Hani, 49, from ru­ral Da­m­as­cus, fears just that. “I have three sons, all above 18,” she said. “If we stayed they would have been taken to the mil­i­tary, and I can­not see that hap­pen, nor will I let it hap­pen. What mother wants her sons to die?

“One of my sons is paral­ysed, the other two work as hard as they can, but we barely make ends meet. Our vil­lage be­came no­to­ri­ous for ar­bi­trary ar­rests and we couldn’t stay. I am count­ing down the days for safety; I miss my home.”

Like many refugees, Umm Hani – not her real name – chose her words care­fully. Others say they had heard con­stant re­ports from in­side Syria that those who had re­turned faced ex­treme vet­ting from se­cu­rity agen­cies and a high risk of de­ten­tion, es­pe­cially if they came from op­po­si­tion ar­eas.

In July the head of Syria’s air force in­tel­li­gence, Maj Gen Jamil Has­san, told se­nior col­leagues: “A Syria with 10 mil­lion trust­wor­thy peo­ple obe­di­ent to the lead­er­ship is bet­ter than a Syria with 30 mil­lion van­dals. Af­ter eight years, Syria will not ac­cept the pres­ence of can­cer­ous cells, and they will be re­moved com­pletely.” The com­ments were first re­ported by the Syr­ian Ob­server, and later con­firmed.

Vengeance has been a reg­u­lar theme of the rhetoric of Syr­ian of­fi­cials, who have dis­cussed the post­war phase – and the loom­ing of­fen­sive on Idlib prov­ince – with al­lies in Beirut. “Any­one who stood against them will be pun­ished along with their fam­ily and clan,” said a se­nior Le­banese mil­i­tary of­fi­cer in reg­u­lar con­tact with Syr­ian coun­ter­parts. “They are ruth­less and they have won. They have long mem­o­ries, and this is their chance to make the coun­try they want.”

Im­punity also seems to be creep­ing into Le­banese po­lit­i­cal de­bate.

“Politi­cians in Le­banon have at­tacked [the UN refugee agency] UNHCR for speak­ing the plain truth,” said HRW’s Khawaja. “That truth is, there are no se­cu­rity guar­an­tees in Syria and that it can­not en­cour­age or fa­cil­i­tate re­turns at this point.”

Amid the ris­ing rhetoric, the re­al­i­ties for Syr­i­ans in Le­banon re­main stark. UN fig­ures show 74% of refugees do not have le­gal res­i­dency, 76% live be­low the poverty line, and more than 300,000 chil­dren are out of school. A steady stream are re­turn­ing, re­gard­less of the dan­ger.

Not Abu Ahmed, though. For him, the risks are still too high. “Will I go back soon? I doubt it,” he said. “Will I stay here? I also doubt it. We’ve be­come gyp­sies.”

Na­bil Moun­zer/EPA

Mo­hammed Rah­man watches over his fam­ily in a camp

Sergei Grits/AP

De­stroyed houses in Aleppo re­mind those who would re­turn to Syria that a suc­cess­ful rein­te­gra­tion may not be easy

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