Legal “bumps” hinder voluntary return to northern Syria

Pedestrians in a street market in the Turkish Istanbul city - 21 May 2022 (Enab Baladi)

Pedestrians in a street market in the Turkish Istanbul city - 21 May 2022 (Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas

Within a blurred horizon and unclear legal features, the voluntary return of refugees is sometimes premature, although the voluntary, safe, permanent return, in which dignity is preserved, is one of the solutions to the issues of displacement and asylum, and it is among the principles of the international refugee system.

The Turkish government has taken more restrictive measures towards Syrian refugees in the recent period, in terms of imposing a fine or deportation outside the country as a punishment for those who work without the required documents to work in Turkey.

This comes amid a basic need for refugees to work legally since the majority of Syrian refugees are young people.

These measures also coincided with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement, on 3 May, of a plan to facilitate the voluntary return of one million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

Erdogan’s comments came through a video during a ceremony for handing over cinder block housing units in the northwestern city of Idlib, in coordination with the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and in the presence of the Turkish Minister of Interior, Suleyman Soylu.

On the other side, the Syrian regime’s government’s efforts to encourage the return of refugees are increasing by holding conferences in the capital, Damascus, under the supervision and sponsorship of Russia, which in turn is working to revitalize the discussion on the issue of refugees, at a time when the European Union is divided over this file.

Is return possible?

Despite all these efforts for the return of refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) affirms that “the current conditions in Syria are not conducive to voluntary return in safety and dignity.”

The regions in Syria still live in a complex security situation and face the threat of military operations and arbitrary arrests, with the absence of security stability as one of the important and possible pillars of “early recovery” and the safe return of refugees and displaced persons, according to the UNHCR.

There are many Syrian refugees who adopt the same UN position regarding voluntary return to northern Syria.

Ali al-Masri, 43, a worker in a food store in the Şirinevler area of ​​Istanbul, says that “the living situation in Syria is very difficult. The money that one collects in Turkey during a period of six months, for example, requires double the period in order to be collected in Syria, due to the difference in the exchange rate and the lack of job opportunities.”

Al-Masri is keen to follow up on his identification papers in Istanbul so that his presence in the Turkish state is legal.

“There is no list of papers that you must have in order not to be deported. I know people who have been transferred to cross-border deportation centers, and they have a Kimlik issued in Istanbul. Still, having something that proves your intention to be within the law is reassuring for me,” al-Masri says.

Enab Baladi asked Mohammed Sheikho, 23, a worker in a sewing workshop, about his willingness to take the decision to return to northern Syria, as the restriction of movement between states in order to search for better job opportunities makes him fall into a legal impasse when arrested by the police for inspection, as he holds a temporary protection card (Kimlik) issued from another Turkish state.

In addition, “the many killings or tensions between Syrian and Turkish workers” make him think daily about returning to the northern Syrian regions.

Return is a right, not an obligation 

Voluntary return is one of the most important axes of sustainable solutions in Syria, which means providing decent livelihoods that ensure that people returning to their areas of origin obtain their basic rights, says Kinan Diab, coordinator of the Voices for Displaced Syrians Forum in Turkey.

One of the options for sustainable solutions with regard to asylum issues is to provide ways of integration in the safe areas where the refugee has sought refuge so that all his problems related to asylum are addressed, or he is voluntarily returned to his area of ​​origin, or he is transferred to a third country within the resettlement process.

According to what Diab told Enab Baladi, “choosing one of these three options does not mean the forfeiture of rights, as it is called the right of return, not the duty of return.”

Therefore, the refugee has the right to choose his return to his areas of origin and not to be imposed on him, as refugees, we have the right to voluntary return, and we have the right to choose the appropriate timing to use this right, says Diab.

The problem of Syrian refugees is not solved by simply returning the refugee to his country of origin, but rather all problems related to asylum must be resolved and completely ended, and for this, there must be long-term development policies, stability, and societal peace, to allow the refugee’s return, Diab stressed.

Missing legal components

The Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management relies in dealing with cases of “voluntary return” on the Turkish Foreigners and International Protection Law of 2013 without direct coordination with any international organization affiliated with the United Nations to assess this file.

The UN relies on specific legal bases to ensure the safety of refugee returnees on their own, which is that the return is voluntary, safe, dignified, and permanent.

The condition of “voluntary” means guaranteeing freedom of movement for the returning refugees, which is not present in northern Syria because, between the areas of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the areas of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), there are crossings and checkpoints, according to Diab.

A shooting attack took place in February against a woman named Fatima Abdulrahman al-Hamid, 28, near the Atma – Deir Ballout IDP camps because she was transporting fuel from the areas controlled by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) in the countryside of Aleppo towards the areas controlled by HTS in Idlib through the Deir Ballout crossing.

The “voluntary” condition also guarantees that the return will not be forcible, and “the word coercive includes exerting pressure,” according to Diab.

“Among the manifestations of exerting pressure on refugees in the place where they reside in order to return to their safe area is refraining from renting adequate housing or refraining from employing,” he added.

The “voluntary” condition also includes the existence of “the refugee’s informed decision to return, i.e., the refugee has sufficient information about the place to which he will return voluntarily, and the reality of life in this place is identical to the information on which the refugee made his decision to return.”

As for the condition of safety, it is divided into physical security, financial security, legal security, and psycho-social security.

The number of arbitrary arrest cases in the areas controlled by the SNA and HTS during last May alone reached 42 people, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).

Legal security includes “access to judicial institutions in order to preserve the civil rights of the refugee, and the presence of a high level of trust in these institutions,” explains Diab.

Nour al-Khatib, the director of the Department of Detainees and forcibly Disappeared Persons at SNHR, explained to Enab Baladi in a previous interview that the main problem in the areas controlled by the SNA is the ineffectiveness of the military or ordinary courts in considering cases involving those accused of several violations.

The judiciary is usually neutralized, and the matter is left to the armed factions and groups and the resulting committees that are formed to consider each case separately, based on what these factions agree on, according to al-Khatib.

As for the condition of dignity, it means that all the circumstances that led to the occurrence of asylum have changed, and therefore there is no such thing as an unconditional return, according to the coordinator of the Voices for Displaced Syrians Forum in Turkey.

In order for the return of refugees to be dignified, acceptable social, political, and economic conditions must be achieved in the country of origin.

Those affected should also be consulted and involved in the affairs of their return to their country of origin, and for the fulfillment of these conditions, a permanent ceasefire should be established as part of a comprehensive peace process, and for many of Syrian refugees, the conditions are summarized by the political change of the regime, Diab said.

The return must also be at its own pace, that is, the return of the refugee must be consistent with the living and economic conditions in which he lives, whether in his current place of residence or his place of origin.

Diab exemplifies that “returning at its own pace means that the return of refugee families is compatible with the end of their children’s schools, and not that the refugee student’s studies are interrupted in order to return to his original area,” adding that also “the refugee farmer returns to his original place at a time when he can harvest his agricultural season in order to be able to secure his livelihood, or at any time he deems appropriate based on his growing season.”

Thus, Diab says, the solutions associated with the refugee’s return are within “what the refugee prefers and chooses for himself and not what the host country prefers,” and the voluntary return must be without manipulation and without any lies.

Among the difficult and complex decisions that refugees make is the decision to return or not to their areas of origin inside Syria after spending a period in the host country and deciding the time has come to return. But when refugees make such decisions, they should be supported until they are legally ready to return, which means that they are aware of their rights, obligations, and entitlements, both in the host country and in their own country, Syria.

They must also receive the support and documents they need so that they can claim their rights and empower themselves in the face of the challenges they will face on the way back.

Returning refugees are supported by enabling them to live, protecting them from security prosecution, returning their real property (houses and lands), or compensating them for their loss or destruction in order to manage the return cases.


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