The Syrian refugees are returning from Lebanon to their homes in Syria without guarantees, amid uncertainty surrounding their fate.
They are heading into the unknown, after they were fed up with the pressures that have tightened the grip on them in recent years and throughout the period of their refuge.
There are no humanitarian organizations to monitor what may befall them, nor to help them start a new life, especially for those who have lost everything they owned and must start from scratch.
A mystery is wrapping the nature of their return, about whether it is voluntary or compulsory. Moreover, differences among the Lebanese themselves are accompanying the proceedings, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a different opinion regarding the issue.
Several international organizations have warned host countries against forcing Syrian refugees to return home, amid worrying approaches which have been undertaken by some to promote the return of the displaced, despite the fact that violence is still taking place in Syria and the authorities did not undertake any significant improvement regarding the severely damaged infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese government has prioritized the refugee’s return. In June, Lebanese President Michel Aoun demanded the return of the Syrian refugees to their homeland without waiting for a political solution, attributing such demand to the fact that political commitments are periodically altered in accordance with circumstances taking place on the ground.
The Lebanese are fed up with the Syrian refugees, as they accuse them of being responsible for the country’s economic crisis and shrinking range of job opportunities.
Estimated statistics indicate that there are about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including one million refugees registered by the UNHCR, most of whom are settled in camps and live in difficult conditions, according to a 2017 study conducted by UNHCR.
Groups of refugees are currently sent back to Syria under the supervision of the Lebanese public security and the formal coordination between the Lebanese government and the Syrian regime’s authorities. Such decision has sparked a wave of criticism among civil society organizations which considered the refugees’ return to be yet unsafe.
The UNHCR and human rights organizations continuously demand to stop the so-called “voluntary return of Syrian refugees” to their country, attributing such calls to recurrent violations which have been committed by the Syrian regime against some refugees who returned from Lebanon to Syria.
Mystery wraps the refugees’ return … and some returnees were killed
Wadih al-Asmar, President of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights (CLDH), told Enab Baladi that the Syrian refugees’ process of return from Lebanon is wrapped in ambiguity and that human rights organizations are unable to neutrally monitor whether such return is voluntary or forced.
Al-Asmar pointed out that there are doubts about deceitful practices put forth by some official or parallel security services to convince some refugees to return without guarantees.
Mouin Maroubi, Minister of State for Displaced Persons in Lebanon, said last month that he had information and evidence that some Syrian refugees who had returned to their country since June had been murdered, especially in areas controlled by the regime.
Maroubi indicated that he was informed by some friends of a crime that has been committed against a family in the town of Barouha in the countryside of Homs. He described it to the media saying: “A security official in the Syrian regime entered the family house and killed the father, his son and the father’s nephew.”
“The majority of news about assassinations and murders targeting the returnees come from areas controlled by the regime, especially in the villages and towns on the eastern and northern borders of Lebanon,” he added.
Regarding the role played by the Lebanese state in the current situation, Maroubi said that the authorities in Lebanon cannot intervene in the matter either negatively or positively, as long as the returnees have chosen to go home voluntarily. Besides, the Lebanese government has no power within the Syrian territories and has no direct relations with the Syrian regime.
Maroubi held the UNHCR accountable for the Syrian refugees’ follow up process, noting that the commission’s monitoring capabilities are limited to particular areas in Syria.
The Coalition’s response and the Commission’s opinion
Abdulrahman Mustafa, head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, called for launching an international investigation into the death of Syrian refugees who returned from Lebanon to Syria in order to sue those involved in the crimes before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Mustafa warned of attempting to return the Syrian refugees to areas controlled by the regime, stressing that a similar step would mean “sending those refugees to their imminent deaths.”
The UNHCR has expressed its readiness to cooperate with the Russian and Syrian sides regarding the establishment of coordination centers for the return of Syrian refugees. However, the commission insisted that such return must be voluntary. The UNHCR confirmed in a statement that the Syrian refugees must not be subjected to any kind of pressures concerning their return to Syria unless they are granted safety conditions and decent lives.
UNHCR is working to ensure that the return of refugees is voluntary by asking them questions in order to assure their safety. However, the commission does not have the necessary means to verify the security situation in Syria, as it does not have free access to areas controlled by the Syrian regime, according to statements made by officials in the UN agency.
Local sources indicated that Syrian returnees were subjected to arrests, enforced disappearances and compulsory military service, in addition to many restrictions imposed on their movement inside Syria.
A human activist from al-Qalamoun spoke to Enab Baladi about the circumstances surrounding the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon and the violations they were subjected to.
The activist, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that the refugees’ return was labeled as voluntary, but the difficult conditions in Lebanese camps and the lack of job opportunities were the real factors that forced them to return despite everything they could face in their homeland.
The activist stated that among the returnees who went back to the area of al-Qalamoun there are persons who were associated with the opposition. Yet, there are others who had no relation to conflicting parties but they were forced to leave the country and seek asylum in Lebanon due to the war, in addition to a number of wealthy individuals who were encouraged to return to Syria by granting them facilitations in order to benefit from their financial resources.
The activist noted that the Syrian regime gave the returnees noticeable assurances. However, the Syrian authorities have committed many violations, such as forcing young returnees to join the military service, while arresting others under mysterious circumstances, in addition to preventing some Syrians from returning to their houses and villages.
He pointed out that the refugees who are returning to al-Qalamoun area are rejected by people in there, as they are considered as terrorists and they are accused of being responsible for the devastation of the region. Due to social exclusion, those returnees have been denied most of their rights, including the right to move freely inside their own towns or in the outside, and to have jobs.
As for the official procedures followed by the returnees, the activist explained that legal bodies sponsored the returning project at the beginning; however, the returnees are currently heading back to Syria following their own initiatives. Syrian refugees wishing to return are required to submit their requests to the Lebanese public security, which communicates in turn with the Syrian side, and in later stages the Syrian state approves the names of the applicants in groups. Moreover, Hezbollah has opened registration offices in most of the Lebanese territories, allowing refugees to go back home.
After receiving the authorization, the returnees would pack their belongings and take buses heading to the Syrian security checkpoints on the borders. There,they go to collection centers and sign three documents requiring them to answer a series of questions, namely about participating in demonstrations, armed activities and the locations of terrorist factions, in addition to the locations of arms and ammunition storage facilities, and involved relatives, as well as mobile numbers and electronic/ social media accounts. Additionally, the returnees are required to sign a document following which they commit not to carry out acts of protest or vandalism, verbally offending political and military leaders, and writing anti-regime statements. Afterwards, they remain in the aforementioned centers waiting for their statues to be legalized, and then they go home with instructions not to leave their residences, or make any contacts with anyone.
Special case for al-Zabadani city
The government of the Syrian regime expressed its willingness to settle the situation of the citizens of al-Zabadani who sought refuge in Lebanon by including their names within the lists of those who are seeking reconciliation. Then, after obtaining security clearance they will be transferred from Lebanon to Syria. The returnee will be granted six-month notice in order to join compulsory military service.
A local source from al-Zabadani confirmed that some of the returnees were arrested by the regime on the pretext of interrogation and were detained for a few days. He pointed out that most of the returnees and detainees were women, and added that those who are wanted by the regime but are not aware of it were arrested in different situations.
He stressed that the infrastructure and services within the city are almost non-existent, and no party is working to improve the situation.
Why are refugees choosing to return?
Haidar Hammoud, a humanitarian activist in Lebanon, who preferred not to disclose the name of the organization he is working for due to security reasons, told Enab Baladi that process of name registration is often voluntary for people who wish to return and who opt for centers in order to register their names, whether at the Lebanese General Security or Lebanese Hezbollah. They will coordinate then with the Syrian regime in this regard and announce the names of those who were approved and those who were not accepted.
However, Hammoud believes that these people are in fact forced to return and that their decision is not the result of a free will, but rather the circumstances in which they lived.
He explained that some families decided to return because of the Properties Ownership Law No. 10, which threatens the property of the refugees. Also, halting the activity of most of the organizations operating in Lebanon was one of the reasons for their return. Some of the refugees are returning by force and deported after being caught by General Security or Army for sneaking into Lebanon through illegal crossings.
As for the conditions imposed on refugees wishing to return, the Lebanese side requires them to pay their fines and settle their residence.
Hammoud stressed that the returnees were given no guarantees. However, the Lebanese General Security or the Lebanese parties or committees that have been established, reassured them that during the first six months of their return they won’t be targeted by any party, but many violations have been monitored, for returnees are often subjected to harassment, detention for the sake of compulsory service and some of them have been detained on the border since their entry.
The conditions the refugees are subject to vary according to the areas to which they return. Some of those who returned to the capital Damascus were not subjected to any kind of harassment, but those who returned to Daraa were forced to compulsory service. Two months after they returned, returnees in Beit Jinn were asked to consult security branches, for each area has its own specificity according to the branch and the existing security authority.
Hammoud pointed out the difficulty of documenting the number of arrests among returnees, despite the large number, as it is difficult to get their names and count their numbers. He stressed that some cases that have been forced to compulsory service have been documented.
As for the refugees’ ability to return to their homes and areas, Hammoud noted that some of them were able to return to their houses after registering their names, but others were forced to settle outside their original areas, such as the inhabitants of Homs, al-Qusayr and other areas.
Regarding the role of organizations in monitoring the status of returning refugees and helping them to start their lives again, Hammoud asserted that there is no one to monitor the cases of returning families or individuals in a serious and documented manner. He pointed out that the United Nations is reviewing the names documented by the UNHCR, which in turn receives these names from the Lebanese General Security. Concerning those who returned through Lebanese Hezbollah or other parties that offer incentives, such as Waad Party, most of them do not register their names.
Russian plan and European response
Last July, Russia announced a plan to bring Syrian refugees back to Syria in an attempt to speed up their return to their towns and villages, from which they fled over the past seven years, pointing out that 1.7 million refugees will return to the country.
Russia chose to begin with Lebanon and this was met by rapid response of Lebanese officials, who held several official meetings with Russian officials to discuss the implementation of the plan in Lebanon. They were led by President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Speaker for the Parliament Nabih Berri and several military and security leaders.
Although Lebanon was one of the first countries to welcome the Russian plan, the Lebanese Ministry of State for Displaced Affairs announced at the beginning of December that the plan cannot be implemented on the ground.
Mouin Maroubi, Minister of State for Displaced Affairs, stated that Russia is unable to implement the plan, because it did not and will not provide the necessary guarantees to encourage refugees to return.
The Russian plan includes establishing committees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to coordinate and follow up with Russia the ways and mechanisms that would enable the refugees to return, and to inform the concerned countries that Russia will guarantee that returnees will not to be subjected to any harassment after coordinating with the Syrian regime. Russia will also establish Russian centers inside Syria, which are meant to receive the returnees in the first step, and then be transferred to their villages after reconstruction as a second step.
Last August, Reuters reported the European Union’s response to the Russian plan, which aimed at bringing the Syrians refugees back, as saying that Syria is still suffering from the scourge of war and is not safe for refugees to return to it.
In the same context, the EU stated that European countries are maintaining their position not to provide funds for the reconstruction of Syria, “as long as President Bashar al-Assad is not allowing the opposition to participate in governing the country.”
This coincided with similar French statements made by French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnès Von der Mühll, who stated that the conditions for the return of Syrian refugees to their country had not been realized because of “al-Assad’s policy.”
The French spokeswoman referred to the presidential law No. 10, saying that it has deprived refugees and internally displaced persons of their property, and referred to the instability in Syria, the arbitrary detention and forced recruitment of Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon.
Russia is counting the returnees
During a joint meeting of the Russian and Syrian coordination centers responsible for facilitating the return of refugees held in December, the head of the National Defense Management Center in Russia, Mikhail Mezentsev, stated that the total number of Syrians who returned to their areas exceeded 1.5 million citizens. He also added that “about 177,000 displaced and 113,000 refugees have returned since the beginning of the current year” under the Russian plan, which focused on the repatriation of refugees from Lebanon and Jordan.
There are no statistics declared by the United Nations in this regard.
250,000 Syrian refugees can return home
The UNHCR announced that up to 250,000 Syrian refugees can return home in 2019.
Reuters quoted the director of the UNHCR Middle East and North Africa bureau, Amin Awad, as saying that “many Syrian refugees are facing problems with documents and property that the Syrian government must contribute to solving.” Awad pointed out that these problems are impeding the return of the Syrians refugees to their country.
He stated that some 5.6 million Syrian refugees remain in neighboring countries including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.
Some 13 million Syrians have been displaced since the conflict broke in Syria in 2011, representing about 60 percent of the population before the war; a displacement rate that no country has witnessed in recent decades, according to the Pew Research Center.