Voluntarily or by force, Stories of Syrians who returned to their homeland

Bab Sreijeh market in Damascus - February 3, 2024 (Enab Baladi/Sarah al-Ahmad)

Bab Sreijeh market in Damascus - February 3, 2024 (Enab Baladi/Sarah al-Ahmad)


Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi

“In front of the border crossing, I stood trembling, dealing with the fear inside me of returning to a homeland I thought was mine, and which I left by force. My papers were complete, and the draft exemption paper in my pocket, all I had to do was pass through the (Kassab) crossing, one eye watching the soldiers and the other watching the hand of the officer waiting for the entry stamp.”

It is not necessary that every person standing in front of the borders of their country, as long as they are not Syrian, feel fear and anxiety, or have previous thoughts occur to them, as happened with Mohammed, a resident of Darayya in Damascus countryside, after nine years he spent in Turkey, until he had enough and decided to return to his city through the Kassab border crossing.

In 2013, a long siege carried out by the Syrian regime forces on the city ended with the displacement of many of its inhabitants, some to the north out of the regime’s control, others to Lebanon, and others crossed into Turkey, Mohammed was one of them and he was only 15 years old at that time.

Mohammed left Darayya and reached Turkey, and decided to return again in 2021.

Between these two years, Mohammed lived a difficult life, similar to the life of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey and neighboring countries of Syria, before making his decision, like other Syrians who met Enab Baladi and talked about the reasons and circumstances of their forced return to their country, each with their reasons, their anxieties, and also their regrets, and their different origin and destination.

Between financial difficulties, racism, and “fear for the future of the girls,” the reasons and motivations for Syrians to return to their cities varied, whether those controlled by the regime or others within different control areas stretched across Syrian geography today.

From Turkey to Idlib and Darayya, Two paths through the crossings

“I lived in a youth housing, all I was doing is working and sleeping, I saw nothing of the beauty of Turkey, I did not own freedom of movement and travel, and I could not renew the kimlik (the temporary protection card granted by the Turkish authorities to Syrian refugees), and my monthly salary was divided between my family’s expenses in the Damascus countryside and my living costs in Istanbul.”

Mohammed is one of the Syrian refugees who faced hate speech fueled by Turkish parties opposed to their presence.

The number of Syrians residing in Turkey, according to the latest statistics issued by the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management on its official website, is 3,174,851 refugees who hold a temporary protection card.

The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey continues to decrease, as the number under the temporary protection system was 3,222,898 refugees.

The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey declined by more than 313,000 during the year 2023, according to official statistics regularly published by the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management.

There are five border crossings between Turkey and Syria, including the Kassab border crossing controlled by the Syrian regime, which is used by those who want to reach regime-held areas without crossing opposition-controlled territories, and the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Idlib and Turkey, in addition to the crossings of Bab al-Salama, Tel Abyad, and Jarablus, all controlled by the Syrian opposition.

Mohammed returned to Darayya for fear of deportation and the lack of a horizon for his life and his distance from his family. He hesitated a lot for fear of arrest and being forced to join the Syrian regime forces, he told Enab Baladi.

Before returning to Syria, Mohammed collected an amount of 8,000 US dollars, the compulsory military conscription cash allowance in regime areas, and obtained a paper that allows him to enter his country from Turkey through the Kassab border crossing, and he moved with the exemption paper in his pocket, which he shows at every military checkpoint he passes.

Human rights and humanitarian organizations continue to document cases of detention of returnees to Syria through the Kassab crossing, which is considered a point for targeting and arresting returnees to Syria.

With every monthly or annual report issued by human rights organizations, they warn against returning to areas under the control of the regime as a whole, as they are “not safe”, and they warn against crossing through the Kassab crossing.

Any talk of opening the crossing for the movement of people is accompanied by activity of groups on Facebook for brokerage and transporting people, with assurances that the returnees will not face any danger during the journey.

While Mohammed’s decision to return to his city and stay next to his family was personal to get rid of the worry of deportation, this was not the case for Bilal, who found himself forced to return.

Months before his meeting with Enab Baladi, Bilal was on his way to his job at an embroidery factory on the outskirts of the Turkish city of Bursa when a police patrol stopped him and requested his temporary protection card, and within minutes he found himself inside a police car because he failed to renew his card due to obstacles related to the establishment of a residence.

From the station, Bilal was led handcuffed towards the city’s migration center, where he was subjected to some violence to force him to sign a document called “voluntary return”.

He called his brother asking for money and some clothes, and told him about the possibility of his deportation at any time, then his mobile phone was confiscated, and his contact with the outside world was completely cut off until he was deported to Idlib through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, a week after his detention.

Bilal lives today in difficult circumstances in Idlib after his deportation, like hundreds of Syrians who arrived in the Syrian north, either voluntarily or forcibly, and they suffer hardship in securing daily needs, especially those who are married.

About 2 million people live in the northern Syrian opposition-controlled camps out of a total of 2.9 million displaced persons, in an area inhabited by 4.5 million people, where 3.7 million people suffer from food insecurity, according to the latest United Nations data.

The recognized poverty line reached 9,314 Turkish liras, the extreme poverty line reached 6,981 Turkish liras, and the unemployment rate reached 88.74% on average (considering day labor within the mentioned categories), while the minimum wages in Idlib, where the Salvation Government controls, and the countryside of Aleppo, where the Interim Government controls, range between 1,140 and 1,500 Turkish liras (the dollar is 30.2 Turkish liras).

In Europe, Stability is subject to fears of the future

Talking about leaving Turkey by Syrians living there seems to be a daily routine given the current circumstances, especially for those who do not own a private job or have not obtained Turkish citizenship, with daily attempts to immigrate to Europe or other countries.

However, the story of Ammar, a resident of Damascus, is different from the other stories of Syrians who decided or were forced to return to their homeland after deciding to leave Sweden permanently and return to the Syrian capital, “fearing for his daughters from the influence of Western society’s habits on their thoughts,” he told Enab Baladi.

“I don’t want to lose my daughters, and neither I nor their mother have the ability to teach them our customs and traditions and wearing the hijab.”

Ammar has three daughters, aged 15, 12, and 10 respectively, and he lived in Sweden for three years.

According to what he told Enab Baladi, Ammar lives in a difficult situation due to economic conditions and rising prices, but he does not regret, considering preserving his daughters is better than the luxuries of Sweden, according to him.

The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner said that many Syrians who fled the war face serious human rights violations and abuses when returning to Syria.

A report issued by the United Nations Human Rights Office on February 13 stated that the documented violations and abuses were committed by the Syrian government, de facto authorities, and other armed groups throughout Syria.

The report mentioned violations including arbitrary detention, torture, mistreatment, sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearance, and kidnapping.

The report was based on testimonies of returnees to Syria, one of whom narrated that security forces of the local authorities arrested him as soon as he returned to Syria and took him to an unknown place, where he remained blindfolded for two days and subjected to severe beatings.

One of the returnees also spoke about her arrest with her daughters by the security forces of the Syrian regime for a week when she was trying to leave Syria for the second time.

She said she had to pay a bribe of 300 US dollars to expedite her release.

The UN committee documented cases of Syrian refugees returning from neighboring countries who were mistreated by security devices of the Syrian regime, and some of them were extorted in exchange for their release, while some others were detained, and many of them, including children, are still missing to date.

“I’m done, I don’t want asylum”

Just as Ammar returned to his city, Damascus, Talal also decided to return to his city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria.

Like thousands of Syrians, Talal made the decision to leave the country, sold his small shop, and moved to Belarus, and then reached Germany in hopes of a better life. Over time, as he started language lessons, he saw how the young people and teenagers there live, and how their customs and traditions differed from those he grew up with in Syria, whether religiously, socially, or culturally.

It became difficult for Talal to adapt to these changes, and he realized that he might face difficulties in raising his children in an environment with different customs and traditions. Therefore, he decided to return despite the economic challenges and the difficult living conditions in Syria.

The Syrians’ decisions to return are met with attempts by thousands of them, regardless of their presence in different Syrian areas under various controls, to leave to other countries, especially in light of the challenging security, economic, and political conditions.

Syria is considered an unsafe country according to international rankings.

The Syrian regime arrested 1,063 people out of a total of 2,317 in different areas of control, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), including refugees returning to their country, numbering 156 individuals.

According to the SNHR, most of the arrests took place in Damascus, then Aleppo, then Damascus countryside, while the total number of those still missing and forcibly disappeared is 155,604 individuals since 2011.

The poverty rate among Syrians is 90%, and 70% of the population, or about 15 million Syrians, need humanitarian aid, according to UN figures.

The cost of the humanitarian appeal is 11.1 billion dollars, the highest worldwide, and the country lacks water security, as Syria is one of the countries most prone to drought.


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