Repatriation is above all thwarted by the lack of a sense of security
“I’m not going back to Syria!” a former Syrian school teacher bellows with all the fierceness a cornered person can muster to a crowd that has gathered for a conference in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. We are weighing the prospects of the refugees returning to their homeland and examining the respective studies and reports.1 “He bombed our schools, homes and children and the whole world let us down! If I should learn that [Bashar al-] Assad is to go to heaven, then I choose hell!” the teacher roars. The applause and cheers of support from the Syrians show how these words speak for many—some of them are even wiping tears from their eyes.
Still, pressure from Russia and Iran to send Syrian refugees back is mounting. The key politicians of both countries are pestering the international public with increasing frequency, claiming that the war in Syria is basically over, Assad has won and now it is time to rebuild the country. Therefore, the refugees must return home. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the US President Donald Trump held a meeting behind closed doors in Helsinki, which was followed by an announcement that Russia had promised to arrange the repatriation of 1.7 million Syrians. At the Tehran summit in early September, where Russia, Iran and Turkey were mainly seeking an agreement over Idlib, both Hassan Rouhani (President of Iran) and Putin raised the question of rebuilding Syria and the return of refugees.2 A little earlier, Damascus had hosted Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif, who also highlighted the good business opportunities that the rebuilding of Iraq and Syria would offer companies. Naturally, northern Syria is also of interest to Turkey. Turkish companies branching out in neighbouring countries would help the country increase its political influence. Turkey deems this important to its national security.
Russia has raised the issue of refugees at every meeting with Middle Eastern countries. Alongside economic issues, refugees were the focus of talks in Jordan in July3 and at a meeting between the Acting Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in August. Lavrov offered Lebanon help with repatriating refugees and allowed Lebanese companies to participate in the rebuilding of Syria. He emphasised that the situation is ripe for this, noting that: “conditions for the return of refugees are already being created. […] To put it mildly, it is counterproductive to make artificial demands that complicate the return of the refugees and the restoration of the country’s potential,”4 thus belittling the views of several European countries and the UN, who believe that it is too soon to start thinking about repatriating Syrians. Russia’s idea of sending Syrians back to rebuild their country was received with applause in Jordan and the tiny Lebanon, which are both grappling with economic standstill and political gridlock. Why does Russia care about refugees all of a sudden?
Syrian Refugees—Russia’s Carrot
The desperate teacher and other refugees I have met as the coordinator of the humanitarian assistance project in Lebanon by the non-profit Pagulasabi (Refugee Assistance) have recently often expressed their fear of being used once again. Russia contributed to the war that drove them from their homeland and now wants them to return to Syria without asking their permission. It is easy to guess the reason for this: the return of refugees and talk of rebuilding the country serve as a carrot—regardless of the methods used for repatriation, it would bring in money from international organisations and potentially from Western countries to the areas controlled by Russia. Rebuilding a war-torn country is a good business opportunity for companies and by promising to make the repatriation of Syrian refugees easier, Russia is enticing the sending countries with the opportunity of participating in the restoration of a ravaged land. On the other hand, rebuilding Syria under the command of Russia and Iran would further increase their influence in the Middle East. The promises related to rebuilding and agreements that are used to tempt Syria’s neighbours along with the repatriation of refugees also help to legitimise Assad as head of state and increase his power in occupied areas.
Why are Russia’s promises so irresistible? In the widely perceived power vacuum left by the US, they promise reputation gains for the political elite of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan from the internal political realities of the region. Refugees have become one of the main topics used by the opposition and extremist nationalist groups to incite polarisation in Jordan, which is struggling with public discontent, Lebanon, which is in yet another political gridlock, and divided Turkey. The harassment and exploitation of Syrians is particularly common in Lebanon and Jordan, but the lack of work, dysfunctional infrastructure and other social problems are still blamed on immigrants. The desire among donors to help these countries is waning, internal political tensions are growing and economies weakening. For instance, this summer, Jordan refused to accept hundreds of thousands of Syrians who were trapped in Syria between the warring parties and the border of Jordan despite pressure applied by the UN.
The situation for refugees is somewhat better in Turkey, which has accepted the highest number of Syrians. Syrians with certain qualifications have the opportunity of obtaining citizenship or finding work in their profession. However, this too is changing—according to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the main opposition party the CHP, it is high time for Turkey to stop swimming against the current, expel Syrians, accept Assad’s victory and begin direct negotiations with him.5 Besides, the AKP’s alliance with the nationalist MHP has started to shift the ruling party’s humanitarian morality that emphasises brotherhood with right-wing nationalism, making Syrians also feel unwelcome in Turkey.
Even EU countries—to whom Syrian refugees are a very small burden compared to Syria’s neighbours—are in a pinch. The ruling political powers have been forced to tighten their immigration policy in order to combat the influence of right-wing populists, whose success is largely due to scaremongering about “others”, especially Muslims. Consequently, pro-Russian and far right Europeans these days are increasingly glorifying President Assad, who has managed, in cooperation with the propagandists of Russia and Iran, to make the opposition and refugees look like cowards or extremists who are not in any way able to acclimatise to life in Europe. Oddly enough, the European far-right these days is increasingly convinced that Assad, whose regime is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the (e)migration of almost half of the population, is the only possible ruling power in Syria. They travel to examine the local conditions at the invitation of the Syrian government6, see what they are shown and come back wishfully thinking that returning is easy and even justified. Quite a few right-wing orientalists add (using more polite words, but the message stands) that the Middle East needs hard-handed dictators who are able to tame and manage this horde of “barbarians”. Therefore, they normalise the view of undemocratic leaders Putin, Assad and Rouhani that reaching a political consensus in Syria remains in the background; there are no moderate political attitudes and one might as well send Syrians back without making any progress in this regard.
As expected, the promises of Russia and Iran fall on fertile ground in Europe and in countries neighbouring Syria. Despite the pressure of propaganda, one might still take time to consider whether the proposals of Russia—which have so far been used to apply force in Syria—to send Syrians back are realistic in the current situation and what kinds of preparations have actually been made for the restoration of Syria. One should also focus on the opinions of internally displaced persons and refugees who have left the country and who are rarely given the opportunity to speak. Do they consider return possible under these conditions?
“Return Means Death!7”
This is the response of the head of a family of 12 currently in their sixth year of living in a shabby tent in the Beqaa Valley. The worst fear for this young man from Homs, who makes 10 USD a day, is getting immediately arrested after crossing the border and being placed in one of the regime’s notorious detention facilities, where tens of thousands of people have gone missing. He is guilty of avoiding conscript service and the regime treats the so-called deserters who refused to fight as opposition activists who are often punished with torture and death.8 Men and women with disloyal family members or from protest areas may face cruel punishments. “The regime doesn’t forgive us anything,” he says, describing his fear of retaliation, like many others.
The various punishments that repatriates are arbitrarily subjected to are among the main reasons why refugees do not dare to go back—even if living in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey is so intolerable that they might as well be wasting away in their warring homeland. Not to mention ludicrous fines and taxes. For instance, families who have left Beqaa have discovered upon returning to Syria that they have been issued outrageous electricity bills reaching thousands of dollars for homes that were bombed to smithereens six years ago.
There are other valid reasons for not returning. For instance, Lebanon stopped registering refugees and renewing their refugee status in 2015. After losing their status, hundreds of thousands of refugees became illegal immigrants. Setting aside the many years of discrimination that comes with forced illegality, such a status also prevents refugees from returning to Syria. Those attempting to cross the border can be (and have been) arrested due to their illegal immigrant status or fined for spending too many years in Lebanon.9 This August, the government of Lebanon agreed to abolish these fines. Instead, they seek to ban returning refugees from entering Lebanon for life or at least for one year. Syrians who would otherwise agree to leave Lebanon cannot accept these conditions due to the lack of security and safety guarantees—there is no political agreement and they cannot burn their bridges due to Syria’s instability, questionable future and general uncertainty
Besides, there is also the question of where to live because a third of the homes in Syria have been razed to the ground10 and the government has decided to ban returning refugees from entering certain cities. For instance, the city of Darayya near Damascus was known for its peaceful protests and resistance.11 In 2016, the government closed the city down as a measure against protesters. To date, only a couple of thousand of the city’s 100,000-odd residents have been allowed to return. The rest are deprived of any real opportunity to access their real estate in the future.
Darayya is a good example of why it is difficult for Syrians to return. Law No. 10, adopted in April 2018, allows the Syrian government to confiscate entire residential districts for “reconstruction and redevelopment” without a clear reason. The Syrian government has used this method of punishing its opponents before. Confiscation of property is justified with the need to develop the urban environment and undesirable people are internally displaced. This law is likely to affect millions of people—both those who have left the country and the internally displaced. Once a decree is issued, property owners have only 30 days to prove their right of ownership and if they fail to do so, the property reverts to the local government and the owner receives no compensation.
Naturally, such a vague law allows officials to discriminate people and contributes to the rampant corruption. Many regional land registers and ownership documents have been lost or destroyed and the owners’ relatives are unable to prove ownership in their name. Therefore, the law inflicts the most damage on people who are not considered loyal to the regime. The period for making a case is unrealistically short considering the local conditions. What is more, around 70% of Syrian refugees do not have the required personal identification documents12 for submitting an ownership claim, which complicates the process of reclaiming property even further.
No wonder that the people languishing in exile feel caught between a rock and a hard place; on the one hand, they are being forced to go home, but on the other, the Syrian government is not even trying to introduce any reforms to ensure that the returning refugees would feel even the slightest bit secure. This has resulted in numerous complaints of harassment and discrimination at checkpoints from tens of thousands of refugees returning from Lebanon.
“Our return is not only an economic but also a logistic problem,” explains a Syrian refugee rapper and poet who is living in Lebanon and adds that the Syrian government is not motivated to receive the people who left. According to him, the lack of interest is expressed in discriminating laws and complete misrule. “We wanted a revolution so as not to live in a large prison! Now the Iranian-Russian troika is forcing us to go back to face even worse restrictions and the world seems to accept this.”
How should democratic Western countries and, most of all, international humanitarian organisations approach this complicated situation? It is clear that returning refugees are at the complete mercy of Assad’s autocracy, but at the same time, refugees are being pressured into leaving the countries neighbouring Syria and even Europe with thinly veiled aggression. This has led to a public quarrel between Lebanon and the UN’s refugee organisation UNHCR, which declared the Lebanese policy and repatriation of refugees inhuman and premature.13 The question of refugees has also become fodder for public debate in Estonia, even though it should be somewhere at the bottom of the list of local social issues. Local forums, which somewhat resemble Russian right-wing sounding boards, are already claiming that the war in Syria is over and the country needs people to rebuild it, as if the six million internally displaced people and five million refugees would find themselves under the rule of law and gain access to their homes and businesses once they return to their homeland. On the contrary, there are numerous reports of deliberate bureaucratic obstructions targeted at former political opponents and families who seek to (re)open their businesses.
Hatred against refugees prevents people from seeing that while the repatriation of Syrians would indeed speed up the rebuilding process, it would also bring benefits and riches to Russia, Iran and naturally Assad’s government. The countries who wish to send Syrians back and help them build homes and infrastructure must either donate money to the Syrian government or invest in Syria via companies controlled by the troika.
One of the topics of the conference on the repatriation of Syrians in Lebanon was economy. An exiled university lecturer summarised the topic thus: “Everyone who invests in Syria must ask themselves who it benefits. Investments are currently used to build a new repressive system reminiscent of North Korea.” Others believe that Assad is deliberately trying to prevent repatriates from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan from entering the country because most of them are poor, and therefore a burden to the regime rather than a valued human resource. “The Syrian government is not interested in repatriates regardless of their political background. If anything, this is social discrimination: they do not want to accept the poor.”
When I ask Syrian refugees what advice they could give to humanitarian organisations that would like to help Syria, I am hit by a barrage of opinions. One of them states resolutely that Western non-government organisations should currently avoid sending money to Syria altogether because it only legitimises the presence of Assad and Russia. Another refugee disagrees, emphasising that the Syrians who remained in the country, the victims of global politics, are in desperate need of help, while also advising to exercise caution: “NGOs should ensure that the aid is directed into transparent projects that do not follow the government’s discriminating policy that infringes human rights. Countries should apply pressure on the troika to the extent of their abilities in order to make them offer political guarantees. Humanitarian organisations should be able to decide themselves who to help in Syria.” Aid must not be provided on political grounds. A European Union official speaks up to explain that there is currently a heated discussion on what to do in Syria because it is clear that every step is guided by the government and the activities of local partners are at the mercy of the regime’s decisions on who to help. The conclusion drawn is that any help given to Syria currently benefits the troika and decisions should be based on thorough background checks and careful consideration.
Syria will continue to offer us food for thought in the coming years. Even after the cessation of war activities, it would be wise for countries with democratic principles and NGOs to wait for (and demand) political agreements while continuing to help Syrians in the neighbouring countries in order to lighten their burden and to offer refuge to those who cannot (yet) return—this is where Estonia will do its best with its limited means. Syrians must wait for a political agreement on the country’s new constitution and make sure that war activities have indeed ceased and security is ensured at least on a rudimentary level. The so-called catch-2214 involving the return of real estate and property must also be overcome—otherwise refugees will simply lose their last motivation to return.
Even though many of the warring parties have radicalised, repatriation is not precluded by religious disagreements, as is widely believed in Europe, because Syria has a long-term experience of co-existence. This is confirmed by most of the people I interviewed. It is above all hampered by practical, legal problems and the lack of long-term security and safety guarantees. “Nobody is a refugee by choice,” remarks one conference participant, echoing the hundreds of Syrians with whom I have spoken over the years. The root causes of emigration are still there and giving in to the troika’s pressure would contribute to the rebirth of an authoritarian state where people are denied their freedom of choice ab initio.
1 For security reasons, I will not mention the names of the interviewees even though they are known to me.
7 The author’s interview with a family of refugees in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.
11 Haid Haid, Where is Home for the Permanently Displaced? Citizens of Daraya, Sept 2018, author’s copy
14 Catch-22 is a no-win situation for which the only solution is to meet conditions that cannot be met.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.