The perils of sending refugees back to Syria

Lebanon’s Syrian refugees stuck between a rock and a hard place

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As the Syrian government retakes territories across the country and active conflict narrows to smaller areas, questions about how and when refugees will return to Syria are on many people’s minds. The questions are spurred in no small part by the eagerness of Syria’s neighbors, including Lebanon, to see these refugees leave.

On July 26, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, met with a Russian diplomatic and military delegation to discuss a Russian refugee return initiative. This was one of many meetings Russian officials were holding regionally, and with EU countries, to urge countries to provide support to the Syrian government to facilitate the return of refugees. The meeting between Lebanese and Russian officials came just over two weeks after Hezbollah, another Syrian government ally, opened reception centers in Lebanon to promote and help facilitate refugee returns.

In Lebanon—which hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrians, by far the highest number of refugees per capita in the world—we at Human Rights Watch have documented government policies that appear designed to push refugees toward returning to Syria. The June decision by caretaker Minister for Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil to freeze staff residency permits for UNHCR officials on the false grounds that they were discouraging refugees from returning by “spreading fear” came as part of a long line of decisions seemingly designed to deter refugees from staying. These policies have made refugees’ lives in Lebanon increasingly difficult.

But in their eagerness to see refugees go home, Lebanese politicians and the public have paid far too little attention not just to logistical obstacles, but also to the barriers preventing some refugees from returning to Syria—such as an inability to pay legal residency fees and a lack of proper documentation—and the difficult situation that awaits those who are able to return.

An impossible choice

Ironically, many of the policies that the Lebanese government put in place to discourage refugees from staying are now obstacles to their return. In 2015, Lebanon introduced regulations that made it both harder and prohibitively expensive for Syrians to renew mandatory residency permits. As a result, 74 percent of refugees now lack legal residency. They live at constant risk of detention and face barriers to enrolling their children in school, getting health care, and working to support their families. Until the requirement to have legal residency was removed this year, Syrians could not register their marriages or the births of their children. Lack of legal residency has also made Syrians more vulnerable to sexual and labor exploitation by employers.

The issue of residency also impacts returns. According to an August 1 General Security directive, to leave the country Syrians must either pay fees based on how long they have defaulted on those residency permits, or risk a one year or permanent ban from Lebanon. While some refugees have agreed to the entry bans, many have expressed hesitation about foreclosing a future escape route, since the situation in Syria is so volatile and humanitarian conditions and respect for human rights are poor. Given the lack of transparency regarding what awaits these refugees on the other side, it is not a risk they are willing to take.

For many, the prospect of returning to live under the rule of an authoritarian government, whose abuses of civilians have been very well documented, without any changes to the status quo is untenable. The Syrian government continues to forcibly conscript young men. Even those who have already served are at significant risk of being called up again and sent to the front lines. To refuse is to go to jail, and detention in  Syria, particularly for those perceived to be anti-government, will most likely mean mistreatment and torture. The Syrian government has not stopped arbitrarily detaining people.

In fact, the Syrian government has created obstacles to returning that match Lebanon’s obstacles to leaving, such as Law No. 10 (2018), which was passed in April and allows the government to confiscate private property without due process or adequate compensation. The Syrian government restricts access for independent humanitarian and international organizations in areas under its control. This not only means that people who return may not be able to get the aid they need, but that these organizations are not able to monitor vulnerable people in these areas, as they have elsewhere. The Syrian government has also restricted access to entire communities, for instance, in parts of Daraya, in the Damascus countryside, whose residents could not go home even if they wanted to. It has also denied some Syrians the right to return through locally coordinated deals requiring security clearance.

The way forward

Beyond a few—often contradictory—statements, the Syrian government has not provided protection guarantees for those returning, or put in place any concrete plan to resolve other deeply entrenched obstacles, including the government’s practices of  arbitrary arrests, mistreatment, and confiscation of property without due process. For most refugees, prior experience with the Syrian government makes it difficult to believe its rhetoric without clear commitments and a means of enforcing government promises.

The question of when and how Syrian refugees will return to Syria, and under what conditions, is complex. Syrians themselves need to make the choice, voluntarily and with a clear understanding of the conditions to which they are returning. Host governments, including the Lebanese government, cannot—by law—force refugees back to a country where they face persecution or death.

In the meantime, there are clear ways forward for the next Lebanese government that do not require Russia’s helping hand. For starters, Lebanon’s General Security and Ministry of Interior should ease restrictions on Syrians that make both staying and returning to Syria difficult. The Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs should also communicate constructively with the Syrian government to address the real obstacles to return—such as arbitrary detention and torture—and ensure that there are viable commitments to protect returning refugees, backed by transparency and access.

Sara Kayyali is the Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch.