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Why would Moscow want to re-open refugees file? A “charade” conference to return Syrian refugees

The head of the Syrian Regime addresses the audience via a video call due to the spread of "Covid-19" during the “refugees return" conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus under the supervision and organization of Russia - 11 November 2020 (Syrian News Agency "SANA")

The head of the Syrian Regime addresses the audience via a video call due to the spread of "Covid-19" during the “refugees return" conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus under the supervision and organization of Russia - 11 November 2020 (Syrian News Agency "SANA")

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Nour al-Deen Ramadan –Ali Darwish – Saleh Malas – Diana Rahima

-“I am not coming tomorrow… had I owned a car I would have left.”

-“Ten minutes for nothing… let us go back home.”

-“It is comic to take five thousand people to Sochi just to applaud!”

-“I will not take part in any other conference from now on.”

-“Ironically, if people in the country had a chance to go, they would do so tomorrow.” 

These were statements from a sarcastic conversation between an interpreter and participants in the “Damascus Conference for Refugees,” which was held in Damascus at Russia’s invitation on 11 and 12 of this November.

This short conversation, which was leaked from a live broadcast of “Russia Today (RT),” a Russian state-controlled international television network via “YouTube” for about ten hours, expresses the expected results of the conference, where the key countries in the Syrian issue, as well as others receiving refugees (with the exception of Lebanon and Iraq), are absent from the scene. Most of the countries that attended the conference are refugee-exporting ones that did not have any active role in the Syrian issue during the past years.

The conference, sponsored by Russia, coincides with a celebration of Russia’s five years of military intervention alongside the Syrian military in Syria. It also coincides with the return of military tension in northern Syria after nearly six months of peace at a time when Syrians are struggling with a suffocating living crisis to earn their daily bread.

The conference’s timing was planned with the preparation for future presidential elections in Syria in less than a year, which the United Nations (UN) refused. At the same time, the world was preoccupied with the presidential elections of the United States of America.

On this issue, Enab Baladi discusses Russia’s objectives and the Syrian regime in the conference, the possibility of Syrian refugees’ return from a legal, living, and political perspective, the possibilities of their acceptance to return, and other reasons that cause the conference to lose its importance.

Will these Russian aims be realized?

The first call to this conference was made from Moscow rather than Damascus, which indicates that it is within Russia’s interests. This fact raises the question of why would Russia want to open the refugees’ return file when Syria’s infrastructure is still not fit for their return, besides the lack of security or economic guarantees for their return?

Raed Jabr, a journalist and expert on Russian affairs, told Enab Baladi that the Russian proposal for the conference aims to escalate or revitalize the international debate on the return of the Syrian refugees at the least. The Russians might also want to explore the reactions of the international community, Jabr said.

Jabr believes that the conference would not have a major impact that leads to an actual return of refugees. He thinks it is nothing more than another hopeless attempt by Moscow.

Previously, the Russian Ministry of Defense had called for holding the first conference for the Syrian refugees under Russia’s auspices on 5 September 2018, describing it as a “historical event,” and affirming the need for the participation of the concerned countries and the United Nations.

The first international conference of its kind for the “refugees’ return” to Syria in the Syrian capital, Damascus, organized and supervised by Russia - 11 November 2020 (Sputnik)

The first international conference of its kind for the “refugees’ return” to Syria in the Syrian capital, Damascus, organized and supervised by Russia – 11 November 2020 (Sputnik)

Moscow put forward proposals for the conference that it presented to the United States on 21 July 2018, during the “Helsinki” summit between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Those were proposals regarding organizing work for the return of Syrian refugees and forming an alliance to finance the reconstruction of Syrian infrastructure.

The proposals included “setting a joint plan for the return of refugees to their places of residence before the conflict, especially the ones in Lebanon and Jordan, and the formation of a joint Russian-American-Jordanian workgroup sponsored by the Amman Monitoring Center, as well as forming a similar group in Lebanon.

After that, the Mini-Group on Syria (Germany, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, France, Jordan, and the United Kingdom) met and issued a statement asserting that there is no solution more vital in Syria than a permanent political solution based on the UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254.

Despite the Russian attempts, the conference did not take place, and Russia could not get reconstruction funding from donor countries.

According to Jabr, it is clear that the conference will not lead to results on the issue of returning refugees, because it is a big project that needs the auspices of the United Nations first, and the agreement with influential parties, especially Turkey, which was not invited to the conference as being the largest incubator for Syrian refugees. In addition to large-scale arrangements, it is impossible to talk about the return of refugees without an international project, Jabr added.

According to Jabr, it appears that there is primarily a political investment that is based on two points. The first is to escalate the debate on refugees, especially since Europe is internally split on the matter and the USA is preoccupied with elections. This allows Russia a certain window of opportunity to make gains and gather with the largest possible number of regional countries and international organizations, which have indeed attended.

The second point is to take a step towards an international debate on the reconstruction process at the very least. It has become clear that talking about refugees’ mass return will not be possible without proper infrastructure and rehabilitation of broad sectors.

Russia believes that the conference could be an appropriate entry point to re-discuss these issues in a broader sense. In the meantime, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the allocation of one billion dollars to support some infrastructure and industrial sectors, not officially by the Ministry of Finance or the Russian government, in conjunction with Iran’s proposal to establish an “International Fund for the Return of Refugees.”

Syrians gather in Idlib, northern Syria, to protest against the international conference for the “refugees’ return” organized by the Syrian regime and Russia in the Syrian capital, Damascus - 12 November, 2020 (AFP)

Syrians gather in Idlib, northern Syria, to protest against the international conference for the “refugees’ return” organized by the Syrian regime and Russia in the Syrian capital, Damascus – 12 November 2020 (AFP)

A Russian attempt to keep the Syrian regime afloat

The regime is complacent in the absence of citizens and is in no rush to have refugees returned

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Nasr al-Youssef, a Syrian media and political researcher explained that the regime was not ready to take back refugees, and it is satisfied with the current situation after expelling millions of Syrians from their lands.

Al-Youssef evidenced his point of view by statements made by many representatives of the regime, led by al-Assad, who described the situation of his areas of control as comfortable, and that the Syrian society had become homogeneous.

Al-Youssef considered al-Assad’s support for the conference as an attempt to create mischief and maneuvers because the regime is convinced that no one will return, which is exactly what it wants.

The director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Fadl Abdul Ghani, affirmed that ” the regime is not concerned with the refugees’ return, but rather it hopes that they will not return, as they are opposition voices in society.”

Al-Youssef believes that the Russians are also a part of this deal since they want to return displaced Syrians for political reasons represented by reshaping and floating the regime then presenting it to the international community as a legitimate authority before the elections scheduled to take place next year. In other words, the larger the number of Syrians outside of Syria, the more difficult it gets to advocate that Bashar al-Assad won the elections with majority voting.

No matter the percentage of participation by the population in the regime-controlled areas, it will not be representatively legitimate. However, if the displaced people returned, this contributes and facilitates Russia’s task of floating and re-imposing the regime as an authority.

Regarding the economy, the returning refugees will start repairing homes, reclaiming their lands, and restoring their factories, and thus the economy will be reinvigorated.

This will ease Russia’s moral burden, as Moscow cannot provide the Syrians sufficiently in conditions of extreme poverty, shortage of life necessities, and high prices.

On the other hand, the reconstruction process is costly, estimated by the United Nations at 400 billion dollars, while other organizations estimate it at 600 billion dollars. Consequently, the displaced people’s return will not be sufficient to rebuild Syria if donor countries do not provide generous support, especially if the US and European sanctions are not lifted.

Factors that render the conference unnecessary

Despite the advanced planning and the invitations sent to most countries of the world, excluding Turkey, some factors made the “refugee Conference” lose its importance:

First: Eastern countries demand the return of refugees in the West

One of the most important factors that made the conference lose its importance is the absence of the countries hosting Syrian refugees. With the exceptions of Lebanon and Iraq, most of the countries that participated in the conference do not host Syrian refugees; instead, they export them, such as Pakistan, Venezuela, Brazil, Somalia, and the Philippines, Algeria, Iran, India, and North Korea, according to what Enab Baladi monitored in a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Apart from the fact that the conference participating countries do not host Syrian refugees, most of these countries are inactive in the Syrian file, such as Argentina, Cuba, and Colombia.

 Second: Western boycott and rejection

The European Union (EU) refused to participate in the conference despite receiving several invitations. European Union Minister for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell emphasized that “the current conditions in Syria do not encourage the promotion of a voluntary return under security and dignity conditions in line with the international law.”

Borrell cited the “limited” return cases documented during the last period as evidence that “reflects the many obstacles and threats to the return of refugees and displaced persons,” including “conscription, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance.”

The EU announced in a statement that while the decision to return should always be an individual decision, conditions in Syria are not suitable at present to encourage voluntary return on a large scale in conditions of safety and dignity in line with the international law.

Aside from the rejection of the EU, which receives hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and also plays an active role in the Syrian file, the United States called for an international boycott of the Russian conference at a meeting of the UN Security Council that took place online on 27 October.

Deputy Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations Richard Mills said that it is “completely inappropriate for Moscow, which supports the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, to oversee the return of refugees, warning that Syria is not ready for a vast return of refugees and that such flow may cause instability.

Washington’s position was concluded with a statement by the US State Department on 13 November, in which it said that the conference was not a sincere attempt to create the necessary conditions for the voluntary and safe return of refugees to Syria. The lack of support for this conference outside the narrow group of regime allies, indicating that it was similar to a “theatrical performance.”

As for Canada, which also receives tens of thousands of Syrians, a tweet by the Canadian government’s account “Canada and Syria” said that Canada would not attend the “refugees conference” hosted by Russia and Syria in Damascus.

The official western vision coincides with the attitudes of prominent human rights organizations, warning that the ceasefire in several regions does not necessarily mean that Syria is ready for refugees’ return in light of its lack of infrastructure and services and the flagrant human rights violations that the country is witnessing.

Third: Unsuitable living conditions and an uncertain future

With the holding of the “refugees conference” at the conference palace, hundreds of Syrians queued in front of bakeries and petrol stations trying to secure their basic needs. While the prices are on the increase with the depreciation, there is no increase in wages. The average wage remains at 149,000 Syrian Pounds (SYP = 52 USD) per month, starting from 37,000 (SYP = 13 USD), according to the website Salary Explore.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) estimated that only 1.3 million people receive adequate food in Syria, which tops the list of the poorest countries in the world at a rate of 82.5 percent, according to data on the global “World By Map” website, as mentioned in a report last February.

Moreover, there is the unknown future for the Syrian economy, the tightening of US sanctions, and the scarcity of the Syrian regime’s resources.

Fourth: Receiving refugees in camps

The conference’s closing statement declared that the Syrian government will continue its efforts to secure the return of refugees from abroad and that it is ready to provide them with a decent life.

However, this statement contradicts one that came from the governor of Rif-Dimashq, Alaa Ibrahim, in which he said that it is possible to receive Syrian refugees on a large scale if the sanctions on Syria are lifted.

Ibrahim added that the returnees would not return to their areas directly, as the governorate has several gathering units, such as the housing centers in al-Harjalah and Adra (which are camps used earlier for those who left settlement areas in Damascus and its outskirts). This reflects the lack of readiness to receive returnees from abroad.

Fifth: Al-Assad limits his presence to a video appearance

Despite celebrating the officials coming to Syria to participate in the conference, the Syrian regime president, Bashar al-Assad, only addressed the attendees via video, even though the conference venue is only a few kilometers away from his residence in Damascus.

The presence of the state president at conferences held in his country gives great importance to the conference, especially since this conference concerns millions of refugees from the country.

Sixth: A paid return for young people

On the conference eve of 8 November, al-Assad issued a decree amending some articles of the Syrian Military Service Law. The new terms guarantee to obtain more foreign exchange from those who pay the exemption tax.

The decree does not include Syrians residing inside of Syria, but the Syrians who have resided for more than a year abroad to encourage them to return.

However, the refugees who wish to return have been divided according to their financial situation due to this decree, as they must pay sums ranging from 3000 to 10,000 dollars, depending on the period of their stay abroad.

“The decree is a critical source of income for the regime due to the economic crisis exacerbated by western sanctions,” said political analyst Hassan al-Nifi to Enab Baladi, “therefore the regime raised the possibility of paying the military exemption fees to include all expatriates on the condition that the period of residence abroad exceeds one year.”

“The return begins with al-Assad’s departure”

Perceptions of Syrian refugees about the return

The main factor in determining the refugees’ decision whether or not they want to return to Syria is the safety and security factor, according to a survey conducted by the UNHCR in 2019.

Human rights reports issued during the current year by Syrian organizations indicated that the security prosecutions of refugees returning to Syria are still continuing, as the security service of the Syrian regime has arrested more than 2000 returned refugees in cases of illegal arbitrary detention, in addition to more than 20 cases of killing under torture in detention centers including children.

These facts contradict the recent statements of al-Assad at the “Refugees’ return conference,” that “the majority of Syrians today are willing to return” considering the bad economic factors that Syria is going through and the unstable security situation in most Syrian cities.

On 11 November, the Syrian opposition, legal organizations, and activists launched a campaign setting conditions for the start of refugees’ voluntary return to Syria, foremost of which is the ousting of the regime’s President, Bashar al-Assad.

More than 33 Syrian organizations and entity signed the launching statement of the campaign called “No Return with al-Assad,” in which they affirmed, in addition to the condition of al-Assad’s departure, the necessity to stop the regime’s bombing of northern Syria, complete the political transition, release detainees, provide a safe environment, and start reconstruction, as other conditions for the voluntary and dignified return of refugees.

Social media users posted on “Facebook” and “Twitter” and responded to the regime’s “claims” that the country is safe for return using many hashtags such as “no return with al-Assad.” They posted texts, photos and recorded videos of detainees still in detention centers, as an indication that the regime has no real guarantees to secure a safe environment for any refugee who opposes the ruling power in Syria.

Among those video recordings that Enab Baladi monitored on “Facebook,” is the famous recording of regime forces’ officer, Issam Zahr al-Din, who gave a direct warning to refugees before he was killed, saying that the regime will not forgive those who return by saying “listen to my sincere advice, do not return.”

Giving weight to Syrian people’s voice

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the Syrian journalist and human rights activist Mansour al-Omari said that the voice of Syrian people is very important to clarify the popular position on the issue of the return of refugees, especially that the reports of the concerned Syrian human rights organizations came supporting popular demands after the campaign had spread.

According to al-Omari, the necessity of such popular online campaigns is to emphasize to the countries hosting Syrians, especially in Europe, the refugees’ categorical rejection of any forced return. Especially since politicians and right-wing European governments are trying to start a normalization process with the Syrian regime to return Syrian refugees.

Countries such as Denmark and Sweden have done so by classifying some areas of Syria as “safe,” which may lead to a conflict of these countries’ obligations with the international law and the principle of non-refoulment.

Abdul Ghani, the director of the SNHR, referred to the same matter in an interview with Enab Baladi, as he considered that the refugee return conference is a deliberate message from the Russians aiming to put pressure on European governments, by using the extremist right-wing governments and parties that demand the return of refugees to some areas they consider safe.

Authorities in a number of European countries tried to control a number of extreme right organizations and groups that refuse the presence of foreigners on European soil, as there have been cases of Syrians being attacked in European countries and the United States by extremists.

According to the UN’s 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 Protocol, Article No. 33 titled “Prohibition of Expulsion or Return” says; “no contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his/ her life or freedom would be threatened on account of his/ her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

These campaigns send a strict and widespread message to these countries that “the return of Syrians is not possible,” according to al-Omari.

Al-Omari also stated, “reaching a political solution through the United Nations does not have to mean that the return of refugees is possible immediately since the conflicting military forces in Syria continue to commit “war crimes” and violations against civilians, targeting activists, organization workers, and journalists, and repressing people.

This campaign delivers a message to the Arab and international media and research centers that “Syrians outside Syria, in general, will not return,” and all that al-Assad has spoken about of their desire to return is pure lies.

Some Arab and international media and foreign newspapers shed light on the campaign, such as the French newspaper “La Croix,” which directly referred to the campaign in its coverage of the “refugees return” conference.

Al-Omari has a hold on some foreign newspapers, such as the “New York Times” and ” The Washington Post” as they reported al-Assad’s statements and ignored the voice of Syrians through the popular campaign and the statements of Syrian civil society organizations, despite having offices in the Lebanese capital, Beirut and their correspondents being aware of the Syrian case and close to the Syrian opposition, especially on social media.

Pushing refugees away rather than encouraging their return!

The Syrian regime’s speech and the closing statement of the conference raise legal questions about the treatment of refugees who had previously returned and about the services provided to them by the government.

Abdul Ghani said that the Syrian regime “basically does not care about keeping the Syrians who are now in its areas of control, aside from demanding the expatriates to return,” noting that the ongoing arrests are pushing more Syrians to emigrate.

Abdul Ghani believes that the regime does not really want the refugees to return due to the economic burden it is already under. Most of those who left Syria are from the opposition, so it continues with a policy of “provocation” and displacement by continuing its arrests. Apart from the fact that the displaced Syrians in opposition areas close to regime-controlled areas did not return, so how can the regime expect the refugees to return?

A demonstration by the people of the town of Jenderes in the northern countryside of Aleppo against the “refugees’ return” conference organized by Russia in the Syrian capital Damascus - 13 November, 2020 (Enab Baladi)

A demonstration by the people of the town of Jenderes in the northern countryside of Aleppo against the “refugees’ return” conference organized by Russia in the Syrian capital Damascus – 13 November 2020 (Enab Baladi)

What should the Syrian regime provide?

Abdul Ghani added that the refugees who returned had been subjected to arrests and enforced disappearances. Some of them have been forcibly re-recruited into the Syrian regime’s army, and others have been harassed and their money confiscated, as the network recorded 700 cases of enforced disappearance against refugees who returned during the past two years.

Refugees who returned to Syria represent less than 7 percent of the refugees around the world. Six percent of them returned from Jordan and Lebanon, meaning that only 1 percent of the total refugees worldwide returned to regime-controlled areas due to their lack of confidence in the Syrian regime.

Abdul Ghani talked about the conditions that the regime must provide to achieve the return, which are the cessation of arrests, torture and enforced disappearances, the release of the forcibly disappeared, the accountability of those responsible for these violations, in addition to the separation of powers in a way that achieves the independence of the judiciary.

Furthermore, the arrests should be legal according to a judicial memorandum, and there must be an abolition of all arbitrary laws through which lands were confiscated and the cessation of forced conscription.

What would entice Syrians to return?

Al-Assad called on refugees at the beginning of the conference to return, saying, “we are working hard for the return of every refugee who wants to return and help in the reconstruction of the country.”

However, the question arises; do the refugees really want to return? what would they want to have in Syria to return?

Enab Baladi contacted refugees residing in several countries via emails and phone calls to answer the two previous questions:

In video recordings by Enab Baladi, refugees in Turkey and Germany rejected the conference and its outcomes, and some said that the reason for their refugee was the Syrian regime, and it is still in place today, while others questioned how to return in the absence of services.

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