Refugees doubt possibility of a peaceful homecoming
Those who fled conflict are sceptical of claims that it is safe to go back
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.”
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