Change before return

Bassel Oudat , Saturday 1 Sep 2018

Russia and the Syrian regime have been encouraging the return of the Syrian refugees to their country, though the latter can have little confidence in either, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Syrian boy in a refugee camp
A young boy peeks out of a tent in a camp near the border with Turkey for people displaced by violence from the Syrian provinces of Idlib and Hama (Photo: AFP)

On 15 August, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad announced the opening of the Nasib border crossing between Syria and Jordan and prepared buses, cars and ambulances to transport the thousands of people who were expected to return to their homes from refugee camps in Jordan.

Russia asked Jordan to put pressure on the Syrian refugees to return home, but no refugees in fact did so since they are afraid of returning to Syria while the Al-Assad regime remains in power despite years of difficulty in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

The UN refugee agency the UNHCR declared 21 conditions that needed to be fulfilled before the Syrian refugees can return.

There must be security and stability, clemency for political activists opposed to the regime, and arrangements for those who have fled conscription.

None of these conditions has been met, meaning that the UNHCR cannot support the return of the refugees.

Some 13 million Syrians, or 60 per cent of the population, were displaced during the conflict in the country, the largest refugee movement in the world in recent decades. Half of these were displaced inside Syria, while the rest fled the country.

The refugees inside the country tried to stay near safe areas mostly under the control of the regime.

Most of them are poor, and many lived in temporary shelters in schools and public buildings at 3,400 locations in 2017.

They were also forced to flee from one area to another depending on the fighting.

Most internal refugees from the rebel areas are women, children and older people, with younger men often staying behind to fight or to avoid arrest by the regime. Businessmen in many cases supported the regime, even partnering with it before the revolution.

Refugees fleeing outside the country have gone to neighbouring countries or beyond. Turkey has opened its borders to Syrian refugees, taking in 3.43 million, according to 2018 figures from the Turkish Ministry of the Interior.

Most of them are under 30 years old and have effectively contributed to reviving Turkey’s economy. They have lived relatively well, with access to health services, work and education.

Lebanon has been less welcoming of Syrian refugees, and it closed its doors to them in 2015.

According to UNHCR figures, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has dropped to less than one million, many of whom face severe difficulties.

Some 60 per cent live in extreme poverty on less than $3 a day per person, and they are discriminated against by the local population. They are not allowed to work or travel freely, and they may be harassed or assaulted.

Jordan hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, more than 80 per cent of them living outside refugee camps and most below the poverty line.

They are assisted by familial ties in Jordan, but the refugees are often still exploited and suffer harsh living conditions on the outskirts of poorer towns.

About half the refugee children do not go to school.

Syrian refugees have also gone to other Arab countries, including 230,000 to Egypt (according to government figures published in July this year), 100,000 to Sudan, 250,000 to Iraq and 26,000 to North African countries. The Gulf countries have not taken any Syrian refugees.

Many refugees also left for Europe, mostly Germany, which hosts more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. Sweden has accepted more than 100,000, Austria 50,000 and the US has accepted 100,000.

European governments and NGOs have made great efforts to assist and train the Syrian refugees, often providing them with financial aid.

After the Helsinki Summit between the US and Russian presidents in July, Moscow announced a plan to send back 1.7 million Syrian refugees to their country and its readiness to provide processing centres, assistance and protection with the Syrian security agencies.

It asked Europe and the US to cooperate with the plan and assist in rebuilding Syria, but both objected and linked the return of the refugees to implementing a political solution in the country.

Russia has its own plans for a political solution in Syria, namely amending the current system without encroaching on its interests in the long term and restructuring the military and security agencies to allow the regime to remain in power.

This is against the political solution adopted by the international community in Geneva in 2012.

Russia wants other countries to share its influence in Syria, while it maintains its military and political grip. It wants the West to help address problems resulting from the conflict, namely the return of the refugees and the reconstruction of the country that it cannot afford alone.

It is manipulating the refugee issue to prevent an international solution, forgetting that the regime the people fled from remains in power, and that most refugees will remain outside the country until a political solution removes the incumbent regime.

Washington has declared that there can be no reconstruction in Syria without holding Al-Assad accountable for his crimes and a real political transition in the country, including a new constitution and general elections.

France has said it will not participate in the reconstruction before a real political transition takes place along with transparent elections. Russia is trying to work with host countries such as Jordan and Lebanon to bring back the refugees, but it cannot guarantee their safety.

They Syrian regime feels victorious with the support of its allies, and it is trying to restore conditions to their pre-2011 level before the destruction of the conflict. Russia is attempting much the same thing, and both want the refugees to return under the umbrella of the regime.

However, the political, regional and global conditions are not right, and there are no guarantees of safety for the returning refugees, which explains why many have decided to stay away.

There are still substantial risks for anyone who returns, including the lack of infrastructure in destroyed areas, instability, the lack of security and harassment by the regime including arrest. Returning now could be a trap.

The return of the refugees from the neighbouring countries is contingent on changes in the political situation and steps towards a political solution that removes regime control over all aspects of society, ends its security and military domination, halts its authoritarianism and contains enough international guarantees to protect the returning refugees.

There must also be services in place and the start of widespread reconstruction to protect people who have lost their homes and livelihoods.

The push factors for the Syrian refugees are clear: escape from oppression and war. These things must be addressed before there can be a solution to the refugee issue.

Oppression and violence by the regime pushed millions of Syrians to leave their homeland, and their return is linked to a democratic political solution that guarantees the rights and safety of all.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Change before return

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