The Return to Syria: Voluntary or Enforced?
In light of a new wave of migration to Europe, reminiscent of the great Syrian migration of 2015, Lebanon is in the process of returning large numbers of Syrian refugees to their country of origin. This resettlement raises a wave of anger and concern for the fate of the refugees. The scenes of Syrians returning to their homes in October 2022, after staying in Lebanon for several years, sparked a wave of anger and anxiety about thier fate across social media with the hashtag #Save_Syrian_Refugees_in_Lebanon.
Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. The government estimates that the country's population of more than 6 million includes nearly 1.5 million refugees from Syria. This figure is far greater than the estimated 839,000 refugees that are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as of March 2022. Abbas Ibrahim, director of the Lebanese General Security Service who is responsible for the country's borders, stated that any returns to Syria would be voluntary and based on a mechanism that has been in place since 2018, before being stopped temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, Lebanese Minister of the Displaced, Issam Sharafeddine, announced a plan to return around 15,000 refugees per month, stating that Syria has become largely safe after more than a decade of war. The plan does not include any role for the UN who insist that conditions in Syria do not allow for large-sale returns. Conversely, Reuters quoted an official source stating that repatriation operations will be limited to those who voluntarily registered to return with the Lebanese Security in coordination with the country's Ministry of Social Affairs. The source indicated that no Syrian refugee will be forced to Leave Lebanon.
However, it has been reported that Syrian refugees who have returned from Lebanon and Jordan between 2017 and 2021 have faced massive human rights violations and persecution by the Syrian government and its affiliated militias. Amnesty International have also highlighted violations committed against refugees who had previously returned to Syria. In a report entitled "You're Going to Your Death", the organisation reported that Syrian intelligence officers subjected returning women, children, and men to illegal or arbitrary detention and torture. Amnesty concluded in the report that no part of Syria is safe for refugees to return to, including Damascus. The report continued to state that people who have left Syria since the beginning of the conflict run a real risk of persecution upon their return.
While Lebanese officials described the return of Syrian refugees to their homes as a "national day", these statements were met with a wave of widespread criticism. Journalist Waqas al-Qadi wrote:
Lebanon, being a state without sovereignty, is proceeding with the deportation of Syrian refugees, despite UN warnings of the dangers of reprisals against them by the regime forces and the militias supporting it.
The term "voluntary return" has been questioned widely, as it amounts to crimes against humanity according to international conventions. In this regard, the current deportation of Syrians is actually a forced return. According to Aljazeera, those who refuse the return are subjected to blackmail, intimidation, and coercion. Press reports have assured that:
The forced return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon means a death sentence, arrest, displacement, and starvation of hundreds of thousands of familied. Lebanon is committing an unprecedented humanitarian, racist, and criminal crime against Syrians who are already fleeing from Assad's hell.
However, the Lebanese General Security Major General Abbas Ibrahim stated that his country would not force any refugee to return to Syria. He explained that nearly 540 thousand Syrians have voluntarily returned to their country since the start of the plan. The same department amended the conditions for accepting the entry of Syrians across the border, should they be reviewing a foreign embassy. The new measures which came into place in September 2021 included a confirmation of the concerned embassy that states the names of the Syrian visitors to Lebanon.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) have announced that Syria is far from providing security and safety to returnees. The organisation have documented that Syrian returnees have faced "grave violations". While most Syrian refugees live in poverty in Lebanon, their living conditions have worsened recently due to the country's economic decline and decreasing energy supplies since 2019. However, HRW have warned that the main threat to Syrian refugees comes from the security structures of the Syrian state. The International Committee of the Red Cross have expressed deep concerns about the possibility of returnees being oppressed by the Syrian authorities as it has been confirmed that a significant proportion of returnees have been arrested by the Syrian intelligence. Moreover, the economic situation in Syria has further deteriorated. Here, more than 9.3 million Syrians are exposed to food insecurity, while over 80 percent of Syrians live in extreme poverty.
Given these details, it is unlikely that Syrian refugees in Lebanon would wish to return collectively and voluntarily to Syria any time soon. At the same time, the suffocating economic crisis that Lebanon is going through will force Syrian refugees in Lebanon to search for new loopholes to reach Europe or the Persian Gulf, instead of returning to Syria.
By Yara Barazy - MENA Consultant and Arabic Linguist