May 2019: This report examines the broad concerns of all categories of returnees—those returning to Syria as refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), or as the result of the so-called reconciliation process— to identify the key challenges and the extent of the risks involved. The conditions to which refugees are returning, and how the mechanics of the process work, are poorly understood.
More than 13 million people have been displaced within and outside Syria during the country’s 8-year ongoing conflict. As immediate conflict-related violence reduces and President Bashar al-Assad his allies consolidate territorial control over south and central Syria, the pressure on refugees in neighbouring countries to return has increased. This new stage in the war has also boosted so-called voluntary returns by those facing difficult circumstances in their places of refuge. The conditions to which refugees are returning, and how the mechanics of the process work, are poorly understood—including by the refugees themselves. As Assad consolidates control over larger swathes of territory, less and less information is available. Those living in government-controlled areas have a renewed sense of fear about communicating with friends and family in other parts of Syria or neighbouring countries. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency charged with monitoring conditions on the ground, continues to face access and data collection restrictions from the Syrian government which they have tacitly accepted to protect their ability to operate in the country at all. This report examines the broad concerns of all categories of returnees—those returning to Syria as refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), or as the result of the so-called reconciliation process— to identify the key challenges and the extent of the risks involved. Assessing the conditions affecting all those returning to the state, rather than only refugees, provides a greater opportunity to identify patterns and concerns and to understand the nature and legitimacy of guarantees offered by Assad and his international backers.
The study finds that conditions on the ground are worrying. Even among the self-selecting ‘voluntary’ returnees, hundreds of detentions and arrests have been reported—including of refugees from abroad, IDPs from armed opposition areas, and those who have undergone a ‘reconciliation’ in an area retaken by the government. Recent detainees report having experienced brutal torture while in custody; deaths in custody have also been recorded. The security sector is re-establishing pervasive (formal and informal) control over society. A reduction in the availability of the extractive war economy activities that have kept the Syrian military and security sector afloat throughout the conflict has caused them to turn to alternative means of income generation. Detentions and arrests are being conducted both to gather intelligence and punish those considered disloyal and to extract payments from families for the release of loved ones. Other forms of extortion are also affecting the security of those living in and returning to the country.
The security sector is controlling the returns process. The security services are institutionalizing a system of self-incrimination and informing to build large databases of information about real and perceived threats from within the Syrian population. To return from abroad or internally, as well as to reconcile affairs with the state, individuals must fill in extensive forms that defy international practice for refugee returns. The existence and nature of the forms is poorly understood and must be highlighted as a threat to any Syrian choosing (or being pressured) to return. Currently, no such concerns are being raised by those working with refugee communities.
The study also finds that state guarantees to communities or individuals as part of reconciliation agreements are not being met. Additionally, instances have been recorded of individuals from all returnee categories being arrested, detained, conscripted, or harassed after completing the reconciliation process and receiving protection or security papers. Based on the evidence, no communities or individuals should expect the government of Syria or its benefactors to fulfil the terms of any such agreement. The process of securitized reconciliation and return is being undertaken even within ostensibly humanitarian venues, such as so-called IDP shelters within Syria. In Eastern Ghouta, thousands of people were offered shelter and aid within IDP shelters during the military campaign waged by Assad and Russia against the area. There, men were separated from women and children and the process of reconciliation and release began. Under the watch of the aid organizations that provided assistance to the shelters, men were detained and conscripted while the so-called reconciliation forms were completed. This process is currently being repeated in Homs, where evacuees from Rukban IDP camp are being detained, ill treated, and forced to undergo interrogation and reconciliation. Fears that similar processes could be used in the event of larger-scale returns from Lebanon are rising. In February 2018, with minimal consultation, the UNHCR detailed 22 protection thresholds that must be met before large-scale or facilitated returns could begin. Despite the thresholds representing only the minimum acceptable standards according to IHL experts, none of these thresholds is currently being met—nor is there any way in which most of them could be met given the current situation.
Underpinning these thresholds is the need to monitor the current conditions, including the security of those who choose to voluntarily return. Presently, no such monitoring is possible. Russia’s thwarted attempt to sell its own refugee return plan to European governments last year suggests the European Union’s (EU’s) position on returns is firmer than some expected. The Russian plan, which favoured logistics over rights, was the first overture toward bartering refugee return for reconstruction funding. Since then, Russia has turned its attention toward Lebanon and, to a lesser degree, Jordan, and is currently negotiating minor points in an attempt to appease Lebanon and allow for an increase in refugee returns from the country. This process has increased the focus on minor adjustments to housing, land and property (HLP) issues, the rate of conscription, and access to personal identification documentation. These amends will not produce tangible changes in the conditions and prognosis of Syria’s potential returnees.
This report assess these issues in order to formulate specific policy objectives to be pursued by peacebuilders, European governments, humanitarians, and parties to the conflict. The research was undertaken between November 2018 and April 2019 and involved interviews with local interlocutors or community focal points from local areas, as well as with more than 30 individuals and focus groups. These individuals were located in government-controlled areas of Syria, in Idlib and northern Aleppo, Turkey, and Lebanon. Each took enormous risks in speaking with the researchers; for every interview conducted, dozens of individuals were unwilling to speak. Researchers also interviewed 15 other actors, including documentation organizations, refugee experts, and domestic and international nongovernmental organization workers. The research is not exhaustive in either scope or geographical reach, but it provides an initial set of findings to help identify problems for further study.