Syrian refugees: 12 years of diaspora

Yasmine Farag, Monday 12 Jun 2023

Twelve years ago, millions of Syrians fled the ravages of the civil war in search of safety and a better life. Some settled in displacement camps in Syria, others managed to reach neighbouring countries or Europe.

FILE - Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border. (Photo: AP)


The situation initially seemed quite humane when several countries opened their doors to Syrian refugees, with some welcoming them with flowers. However, after more than a decade of struggling to survive, many countries began rejecting Syrian refugees, with some already beginning deportations.

According to the United Nations, more than 13 million Syrians have either fled the country or are displaced within its borders as Syria remains the world’s largest displacement crisis. Neighbouring countries have received more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees.

With the increasing global financial pressure, especially in light of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian war, many hosting countries are now intensifying efforts to secure the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland as soon as possible, claiming that refugees pose an economic burden despite the aid these countries receive from different entities.

Lebanese authorities deported 753 Syrians in April and May, including 72 women and 94 children, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

There emerged reports of arrest campaigns carried out by Lebanese authorities against Syrian refugees, surveillance measures, security restrictions, and other daily pressures that made Syrian refugees in Lebanon live under the terror of forced return to Syria.

Lebanese Minister of Displaced Affairs Essam Sharaf El-Din told BBC that the process of deporting Syrian refugees would be repeated. He said it is time for Syrian refugees to return to their country after years of displacement and difficulties, noting that about 90 percent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line in Lebanon.

In Turkey, the Syrian refugee issue emerged as an important political manoeuvre that ignited the Turkish presidential elections. The pledges of opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu to deport Syrians were favoured by many Turks who were fed up with Syrians taking benefits from state facilities and services.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was re-elected as president, announced that he had a plan for the deportation of one million Syrian refugees to their country, including the construction of facilities for them in 13 regions in Syria, in coordination with the local authorities in these regions.

The Turkish Migration Agency reported in January that there were 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and in 2022 nearly 59,000 returned to safe areas in Syria.

In Europe, countries such as Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark, and Austria witnessed campaigns in some areas where the far right has won local elections, calling for the deportation of Syrian refugees. However, no official decisions have been issued so far regarding forced deportation, which is contrary to international law.

The voluntary return of Syrian refugees was on top of the Arab League summit agenda in Jeddah last May, as Arab leaders asserted that "the voluntary and safe return of refugees to their country is a top priority, and the necessary steps must be taken immediately to implement it.”

However, what are the chances of Syrian refugees returning after 12 years of asylum?

“Despite the decline in the intensity of the conflict in Syria and the Syrian army regaining control of many areas, the political crisis has not ended, nor have the poor social and economic conditions that Syrian people suffer,” researcher Rabha Saif Allam, a Syrian affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said.

More than 6.9 million people are still displaced in the country, and 14.6 million people require humanitarian and other forms of assistance. Some 5.9 million people need help to secure safe accommodation, and many still face challenges accessing basic services like education and healthcare, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In 2021, three-quarters of all households in the country said they could not meet their most basic needs – 10 percent more than the year before.

Allam explained that: “The voluntary return of Syrian refugees is an option on the table, but implementing it is a dilemma, because it is not up to each host country separately, but rather something that definitely needs coordination with the Syrian government, which should actually be politically, economically, and security-wise qualified for their return.”

However, some Syrians choose to return home.

“In 2021, the UNHCR verified or monitored the return of close to 36,000 refugees to Syria,” a UNHCR spokesperson revealed in a press briefing at the UN office in Geneva. Refugees cite various factors for their decision to return or not, such as their safety, property rights, and livelihood opportunities. In parallel, many internally displaced Syrians have returned home, adding to the overall reintegration needs, according to a UNHCR spokesperson.

On the other hand, the international community is now financially and politically exhausted by the Syrian crisis, especially in light of the emergence of other crises that have triggered other refugee flows like the Russian-Ukrainian war and conflict in Sudan, which has led to the decline of the Syrian refugee issue in the list of priorities for international aid, according to Allam.

Last year, less than half of the funding required for the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan to respond to the Syria refugee crisis was received, the UN revealed.

In Syria and as the needs grow, humanitarian organizations urgently require the resources necessary to strengthen their work. The UNHCR has received seven percent of the $465.2 million it requires for its work in Syria in 2022. 


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