The per­ils of send­ing refugees back to Syria

Le­banon’s Syr­ian refugees stuck be­tween a rock and a hard place

Executive Magazine - - Front Page - SARA KAYYALI is the Syria re­searcher at Hu­man Rights Watch.

As the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment re­takes ter­ri­to­ries across the coun­try and ac­tive con­flict nar­rows to smaller ar­eas, ques­tions about how and when refugees will re­turn to Syria are on many peo­ple’s minds. The ques­tions are spurred in no small part by the ea­ger­ness of Syria’s neigh­bors, in­clud­ing Le­banon, to see these refugees leave.

On July 26, Saad Hariri, Le­banon’s prime min­is­ter, met with a Rus­sian diplo­matic and mil­i­tary del­e­ga­tion to dis­cuss a Rus­sian refugee re­turn ini­tia­tive. This was one of many meet­ings Rus­sian of­fi­cials were hold­ing re­gion­ally, and with EU coun­tries, to urge coun­tries to pro­vide sup­port to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to fa­cil­i­tate the re­turn of refugees. The meet­ing be­tween Le­banese and Rus­sian of­fi­cials came just over two weeks af­ter Hezbol­lah, an­other Syr­ian gov­ern­ment ally, opened re­cep­tion cen­ters in Le­banon to pro­mote and help fa­cil­i­tate refugee re­turns.

In Le­banon—which hosts an es­ti­mated 1.5 mil­lion Syr­i­ans, by far the high­est num­ber of refugees per capita in the world—we at Hu­man Rights Watch have doc­u­mented gov­ern­ment poli­cies that ap­pear de­signed to push refugees to­ward re­turn­ing to Syria. The June de­ci­sion by care­taker Min­is­ter for For­eign Af­fairs Ge­bran Bas­sil to freeze staff res­i­dency per­mits for UNHCR of­fi­cials on the false grounds that they were dis­cour­ag­ing refugees from re­turn­ing by “spread­ing fear” came as part of a long line of de­ci­sions seem­ingly de­signed to de­ter refugees from stay­ing. These poli­cies have made refugees’ lives in Le­banon in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult.

But in their ea­ger­ness to see refugees go home, Le­banese politi­cians and the pub­lic have paid far too lit­tle at­ten­tion not just to lo­gis­ti­cal ob­sta­cles, but also to the bar­ri­ers pre­vent­ing some refugees from re­turn­ing to Syria—such as an in­abil­ity to pay le­gal res­i­dency fees and a lack of proper doc­u­men­ta­tion—and the dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion that awaits those who are able to re­turn.


Iron­i­cally, many of the poli­cies that the Le­banese gov­ern­ment put in place to dis­cour­age refugees from stay­ing are now ob­sta­cles to their re­turn. In 2015, Le­banon in­tro­duced reg­u­la­tions that made it both harder and pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive for Syr­i­ans to re­new manda­tory res­i­dency per­mits. As a re­sult, 74 per­cent of refugees now lack le­gal res­i­dency. They live at con­stant risk of de­ten­tion and face bar­ri­ers to en­rolling their chil­dren in school, get­ting health care, and work­ing to sup­port their fam­i­lies. Un­til the re­quire­ment to have le­gal res­i­dency was re­moved this year, Syr­i­ans could not reg­is­ter their mar­riages or the births of their chil­dren. Lack of le­gal res­i­dency has also made Syr­i­ans more vul­ner­a­ble to sex­ual and la­bor ex­ploita­tion by em­ploy­ers.

The is­sue of res­i­dency also im­pacts re­turns. Ac­cord­ing to an Au­gust 1 Gen­eral Se­cu­rity direc­tive, to leave the coun­try Syr­i­ans must ei­ther pay fees based on how long they have de­faulted on those res­i­dency per­mits, or risk a one year or per­ma­nent ban from Le­banon. While some refugees have agreed to the en­try bans, many have ex­pressed hes­i­ta­tion about fore- clos­ing a fu­ture es­cape route, since the sit­u­a­tion in Syria is so volatile and humanitarian con­di­tions and re­spect for hu­man rights are poor. Given the lack of trans­parency re­gard­ing what awaits these refugees on the other side, it is not a risk they are will­ing to take.

For many, the prospect of re­turn­ing to live un­der the rule of an au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment, whose abuses of civil­ians have been very well doc­u­mented, with­out any changes to the sta­tus quo is un­ten­able. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to forcibly con­script young men. Even those who have al­ready served are at sig-

nif­i­cant risk of be­ing called up again and sent to the front lines. To refuse is to go to jail, and de­ten­tion in Syria, par­tic­u­larly for those per­ceived to be anti-gov­ern­ment, will most likely mean mis­treat­ment and tor­ture. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has not stopped ar­bi­trar­ily de­tain­ing peo­ple.

In fact, the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has cre­ated ob­sta­cles to re­turn­ing that match Le­banon’s ob­sta­cles to leav­ing, such as Law No. 10 (2018), which was passed in April and al­lows the gov­ern­ment to con­fis­cate pri­vate prop­erty with­out due process or ad­e­quate com­pen­sa­tion. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment re­stricts ac­cess for in­de­pen­dent humanitarian and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions in ar­eas un­der its con­trol. This not only means that peo­ple who re­turn may not be able to get the aid they need, but that these or­ga­ni­za­tions are not able to mon­i­tor vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in these ar­eas, as they have else­where. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has also re­stricted ac­cess to en­tire com­mu­ni­ties, for in­stance, in parts of Daraya, in the Da­m­as­cus coun­try­side, whose res­i­dents could not go home even if they wanted to. It has also de­nied some Syr­i­ans the right to re­turn through lo­cally co­or­di­nated deals re­quir­ing se­cu­rity clear­ance.


Be­yond a few—of­ten con­tra­dic­tory—state­ments, the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has not pro­vided pro­tec­tion guar­an­tees for those re­turn­ing, or put in place any con­crete plan to re­solve other deeply en­trenched ob­sta­cles, in­clud­ing the gov­ern­ment’s prac­tices of ar­bi­trary ar­rests, mis­treat­ment, and con­fis­ca­tion of prop­erty with­out due process. For most refugees, prior ex­pe­ri­ence with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment makes it dif­fi­cult to be­lieve its rhetoric with­out clear com­mit­ments and a means of en­forc­ing gov­ern­ment prom­ises.

The ques­tion of when and how Syr­ian refugees will re­turn to Syria, and un­der what con­di­tions, is com- plex. Syr­i­ans them­selves need to make the choice, vol­un­tar­ily and with a clear un­der­stand­ing of the con­di­tions to which they are re­turn­ing. Host gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing the Le­banese gov­ern­ment, can­not—by law—force refugees back to a coun­try where they face per­se­cu­tion or death.

In the mean­time, there are clear ways for­ward for the next Le­banese gov­ern­ment that do not re­quire Russia’s help­ing hand. For starters, Le­banon’s Gen­eral Se­cu­rity and Min­istry of In­te­rior should ease re­stric­tions on Syr­i­ans that make both stay­ing and re­turn­ing to Syria dif­fi­cult. The Le­banese Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs should also com­mu­ni­cate con­struc­tively with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to ad­dress the real ob­sta­cles to re­turn—such as ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion and tor­ture—and en­sure that there are vi­able com­mit­ments to pro­tect re­turn­ing refugees, backed by trans­parency and ac­cess.

Syr­ian refugees ride a truck car­ry­ing their per­sonal be­long­ings at a Le­banese army check­point in Wadi Hmeid in the Bekaa val­ley, af­ter leav­ing the vil­lage of Ar­sal to re­turn to their homes in Syria’s Qalam­oun re­gion on July 23, 2018.

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