Recent news reports have surfaced on a possible United States-Russia deal to arrange for the return of refugees to Syria—reports that coincided both with the announcement that thousands of Syrians have died in regime prisons, and with one of the worst massacres in the conflict, perpetrated by ISIS in the city of Swaida. The US-Russia deal has been welcomed by Lebanese politicians, particularly those who have been scheming to repatriate Syrians for years now. But, unsurprisingly, the absence of a clear and coherent strategy for repatriation by the Lebanese government puts Syrian refugees at grave risk.
In June, UNHCR interviewed Syrian refugees in Arsal who had expressed their willingness to go back to Syria in order to verify that they had the documentation needed for return and to ensure they were fully aware of the conditions in their home country. In response, caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil accused the agency of impeding refugees’ free return and ordered a freeze on the renewal of agency staff residency permits.
This tug of war raises two main questions: What are the conditions in Lebanon that are pushing refugees toward returning to Syria while the conflict is ongoing and dangers persist? And what are the obstacles preventing some Syrians from returning freely to their homes?
Conditions for Syrians in Lebanon
Syrians began fleeing to Lebanon as early as 2011, but the Lebanese government failed to produce a single policy response until 2014, leading to ad-hoc practices by donors and host communities.
By the end of 2014, the government began introducing policies to “reduce the number of displaced Syrians,” including closing the borders and requiring Syrians to either register with UNHCR and pledge not to work, or to secure a Lebanese sponsor to remain legally in the country and pay a $200 residency permit fee every six months. In May 2015, the government directed UNHCR to stop registering refugees. These conditions put many Syrians in a precarious position: without documentation, vulnerable to arrest and detention, and with limited mobility. Municipalities have been impeding freedom of movement as well, by imposing curfews on Syrians and even expelling them from their towns.
In addition to the difficulties imposed by the state, Syrians face discrimination and violence on a day-to-day basis. Refugee settlements have been set on fire, Syrians have been beaten in the streets, and camps are regularly raided by the Lebanese army. All the while, Lebanese politicians foster and fuel the hatred of Syrians, blaming them for the country’s miseries and painting them as existential and security threats.
Despite the polarization among Lebanese politicians regarding the situation in Syria, there is a consensus that the Syrian refugees are a burden that Lebanon cannot bear. Politicians across the board have been advocating for the immediate repatriation of refugees, and state officials are beginning to take action. President Michel Aoun made a statement in May declaring that Lebanon would seek a solution regarding the refugee crisis without taking into account the preferences of the UN or the European Union. This was followed by Bassil’s move to freeze the residency permits of UNHCR staff, the leading agency (despite its many shortcomings) providing services for, and protecting the interests of, Syrian refugees. While UNHCR maintains that there are no safe zones in Syria as of yet, Lebanon’s General Security has begun facilitating the return of hundreds of refugees from Arsal and nearby towns. This process has been monitored by UNHCR to ensure that the returns are voluntary. Hezbollah has also established centers to organize the return of Syrians to their homes in collaboration with the Syrian regime.
Syrian regime obstructing refugees’ free return
As the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon becomes more and more unbearable, conditions for them back home remain troubling. Since 2012, the Syrian regime has been taking deliberate measures that would effectively make the situation for returning Syrians extremely difficult and dangerous.
Syrian males aged 18 to 42 must serve in the Syrian Armed Forces. While exemptions were allowed in the past, a decree issued in 2017 bans exemptions from military service. Refusing to serve in the Syrian army results in imprisonment or an $8,000 fine, which most Syrians are unable to pay, thus risking having their assets seized by the regime.
Property as a weapon of war
Law No. 66 (2012) allowed for the creation of development zones in specified areas across the country. Under the pretense of redeveloping areas currently hosting informal settlements or unauthorized housing, the law is actually being used to expropriate land from residents in areas identified in the decree, which are mostly former opposition strongholds such as Daraya and Ghouta.
Law No. 10 (2018), passed in April, speeds up the above process. This law stipulates the designation of development or reconstruction zones, requiring local authorities to request a list of property owners from public real estate authorities. Those whose have property within these zones but are not registered on the list are notified by local authorities and must present proof of property within 30 days. If they are successful in providing proof, they get shares of the redevelopment project; otherwise, ownership reverts to the local authority in the province, town, or city where the property is located. Human Rights Watch has published a detailed Q&A that explains the law and its implications.
These laws, coupled with systematic destruction of land registries by local authorities, fully equip the regime to dispossess hundreds of thousands of Syrian families. Reports indicate that the regime has already begun reconstruction in areas south of Damascus.
Statements by Syrian officials
Syrian officials have made several public statements that reveal their hostility toward refugees. On August 20, 2017, at the opening ceremony of a conference held by Syria’s foreign ministry, President Bashar al-Assad gave a speech in which he said: “It’s true that we lost the best of our young men as well as our infrastructure, but in return we gained a healthier, more homogeneous society.” On another occasion, Assad stated his belief that some refugees are terrorists.
In September 2017, a video of Issam Zahreddine, a commander in the Syrian Armed Forces, went viral. In the video, Zahreddine threatens refugees against returning, saying: “To everyone who fled Syria to other countries, please do not return. If the government forgives you, we will not. I advise you not to come back.” Zahreddine later clarified that his remarks were meant for rebels and ISIS followers, but that clarification should be taken with a grain of salt given his bloody track record in the war up until his death in October 2017. Along similar lines, leaked information from a meeting of top-ranking army officers just last month reported the following statement by the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence administration, General Jamil Al-Hassan: “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.”
Considering the unwelcoming policies in Lebanon and the treacherous conditions in Syria, what is the fate of Syrian refugees, specifically those who oppose the Assad regime? Until now, the return championed by Lebanese politicians implies return to a fascist regime that has caused the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War and unapologetically committed countless war crimes. While Lebanese politicians continue to focus on repatriation, they are failing to acknowledge the major barriers preventing Syrians from returning home: the Assad regime and ongoing mass violence.
We cannot speak of safe, dignified, and sustainable returns without demanding justice and accountability. Regime change and trials for those who committed war crimes over the span of the last seven years are a long way off, and all evidence currently points toward the Assad regime retaining power. Any strategy must therefore prioritize the safety of Syrians who are likely to be detained, tortured, and killed for their political views upon return, or simply denied entry to Syria altogether. Lebanese policy makers must take into account that Syrians residing in Lebanon are not a homogenous entity, and some may never be able to return to their homes. Those Syrians should not be forced to choose between a brutal regime that will persecute them and a country that strips away their rights and dignity. It is time for Lebanon to adopt clear policies on asylum, resettlement, and return that ensure the right of all Syrians to lead a safe and dignified life.