Return to Syria: the great fear of refugees
Now that fighting has ended in much of Syria and most of the country is under regime control, some Lebanese officials consider that it is time for refugees to return home. But the relatives of people who have gone back talk of abuse, forced army conscription, arbitrary arrests and areas of the country they are not permitted to access.
More than one million Syrian refugees are living in dire conditions in Lebanon. Yet, despite urgent calls from some Lebanese leaders and, recently, from the Syrian regime, few are willing to return to their country. Lebanon’s General Security (GS) has been organizing “voluntary returns” in coordination with the Syrian regime for almost a year now. But the experience of the few people who have chosen to go back is discouraging their relatives in Lebanon from following in their footsteps. Once in Syria, they say, some people are immediately taken by Syrian intelligence services. Others are conscripted into the military, even if they have already served in the army. Some can’t access the areas where they once lived. And many return only to find ruined homes in an economically broken country where infrastructure has been destroyed and basic services are almost non-existent. On top of everything, international humanitarian agencies do not have free access to all areas of the country to provide assistance to returning refugees.
"The conditions for a safe return are not yet met. There are arrests. People are forcibly joining the army. Militias are abusing civilians," says Nibal Salloum, coordinator at the Civil Society and Democracy Center (CSDC). "Sending refugees back in this context is extremely dangerous."
Salloum also said that there are ten documented cases of people who have been killed in recent months after returning to Syria, particularly in the Qalamoun area, and several people have been arrested after crossing the border. The stories of numerous refugees and activists interviewed by L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) support this statement. "Several members of my family went back to Qalamoun two months ago as part of the ‘voluntary return’ organized by the Lebanese GS,” says Ghada, a Syrian activist who lives in Arsal in the Bekaa. “Three days after their return, the eleven men were taken to intelligence headquarters and interrogated. One of them was arrested. The others, aged 18 to 40, were enlisted in the army, and those older than 40 are now reservists. There was no six-month grace period," she adds, referring to a condition the Syrian regime supposedly committed to for the returns to take place.
Many people have also returned to find “their homes completely destroyed, with no water, no gas, almost no electricity,” Ghada says. Because of all these stories, no one has asked for their name to be on the return lists.
A man from Qalamoun, who was had relatives in the opposition and returned voluntarily, was killed by pro-regime residents a few days after he went back. The attackers came to his house in the middle of the night, according to Ghada and several other residents. Mona, another Syrian activist living in the Bekaa, says that four families among her neighbors returned voluntarily to the Homs region. “All the men had already done their military service, but those under 40 were again enlisted in the army,” she explains. "Whenever I ask my mother, who has recently gone back with my disabled sister, if I can join her, she hangs up on me to make me understand not to even think about it,” Khaled, originally from the Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus, adds.
“The regime has no interest in seeing them return”
In a speech on Feb. 17, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad invited refugees to return. “Syria is in need of all its sons, and we call on refugees to return to take part in the process of reconstruction,” he said.
The Lebanese Minister of State for Refugee Affairs, Saleh Gharib, an ally of the Syrian regime, visited Damascus even before the new Lebanese government received a vote of confidence. While there, he was reportedly given assurances from Syrian authorities about their support for returns. "The minister's visit was very positive,” his spokesman, Jad Haidar, said. The Syrian Minister of Local Administration and Environment, Hussein Makhlouf, who met with Saleh, assured him that "the return of the displaced is an essential element of the [regime’s] victory," Haidar continued.
A Lebanese source, who wished to remain anonymous, described a different version of the visit: "Gharib was told in Damascus that there is no food, no electricity, no water. Without reconstruction, there will be no return of refugees," the source said. A well-informed Western diplomatic source confirmed this account. "Gharib’s visit did not allow any progress… The regime has no interest in seeing a large number of Sunni people, originally from rural and semi-urban areas, come back, although these people are not necessarily activists,” the source said, adding: "Opponents are no longer in Lebanon, but in Europe or Turkey.” "[The regime] plays very well the return card with the Lebanese. They know that the Lebanese are obsessed with this issue for reasons of demographic balance, but they themselves are in no hurry to see the refugees come back,” the source continued. “They are using this to pressure Lebanon as a gateway to normalizing relations. They use Lebanon as leverage to rejoin the international community again.”
Moreover, a plan announced last year by the Russian Ministry of Defense for the mass return of refugees from Lebanon and Jordan has not been implemented, although Lebanon is counting on the proposal, and it is even mentioned in the ministerial declaration of the new government. "This plan is sort of a fundraising operation to make the Europeans finance the reconstruction, stating that if we rebuild, the refugees will return. But this Russian plan has remained unanswered, nothing has really happened since it was announced last July,” the Western diplomatic source said.
Nevertheless, the Russians, “who want to see a political solution in Syria” according to the same source, are maneuvering on the ground to remove some obstacles to return, For example, they lobbied hard for the Syrian regime to amend Law Number 10, which allowed the government to seize land and was widely seen as an impediment to refugee returns, according to the same source.
Last week, after a visit to Syria and Lebanon, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, also pointed out that the Russians have been very helpful working on legal issues like amnesty. But he admitted that the regime's six month grace period for conscription "has not been respected in some cases". Grandi also said he had received confirmation from the Syrian government that returns would go on based on the lists of names approved by Syrian security forces. Several people interviewed by OLJ said that they had applied for return several times, but had not been granted permission.
The High Commissioner said he sent “a very strong message” to the Syrian government that the presence of international organizations would be a reassurance for refugees. "Without such a presence, trust is missing," he said. “It is very important for the UNHCR and other organizations, to have access to the areas where refugees will be going back," Grandi said. He was able to visit the governorates of Homs and Hama, but was not allowed to travel to the Damascus suburbs.
According to numerous witnesses, authorities are not allowing access to certain areas that have experienced violent fighting, particularly in the Ghouta and some neighborhoods in Homs. Internally displaced people from these areas are reported to have been placed in reception centers–such as schools, sports complexes–and not allowed to return to their homes.
"In the Eastern Ghouta (retaken by the regime last winter), from which a large part of the Bekaa refugees are from, people were able to return to only two or three places, including Zamalka and Arbine,” said an activist who wished to remain anonymous. "Even if people want to recover things and personal items from their homes, they need clearance from the security services… In Deraa, in the south, and in the Homs governorate, there are still forbidden areas.”
Quseir, a city in western Syria close to the border with Lebanon, stands out as a special case. It was retaken from rebel forces by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in June 2013. Several refugees residing in Lebanon claim that their homes are now occupied by Hezbollah. "All the people from Quseir who try to register on the General Security lists are refused," the same activist says.