Russian efforts fail on refugees

Bassel Oudat , Saturday 29 Sep 2018

Russia is working to return the Syrian refugees to their country, but few have returned in the absence of a political solution to the conflict, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees in Lebanon returned back to their homeland last month (photos: Reuters)

Russia is continuing to urge Europe and the US to assist in Syria’s reconstruction and particularly to assist the refugees and the displaced to return to their country, asking for sanctions against the Syrian regime to be lifted to facilitate this goal.

It is also doing its best to promote the idea among the Syrian refugees that conditions back home are safe and stable, inviting them to return without fear.

However, Moscow refuses to link the return of the refugees and reconstruction with a political transition in Syria.

Senior Russian officials including Dimitry Polyansky, Russia’s Deputy Representative to the UN, have said that other countries “should not link their assistance with demands for political change in Syria.”

Some estimates put the figure needed to reconstruct Syria at some $300 billion, and there is also a crying lack of human resources, since more than half the Syrian population has fled or been displaced during the conflict in the country.

The number of refugees and displaced is nearly 13 million, or 60 per cent of the population. Half of them have been displaced inside the country and half outside.

Those who were displaced inside the country are mostly from the poorer classes who fled out of fears of the destruction of their towns and villages.

Other refugees fled abroad to escape the fighting, or crackdowns by the security agencies or radical Islamist groups, or to avoid conscription.

There are now 3.4 million Syrians living in Turkey, less than one million in Lebanon, 1.5 million in Jordan, 230,000 in Egypt, 100,000 in Sudan, 250,000 in Iraq and 26,000 in North Africa.

The largest number of registered refugees is in Europe, including 500,000 in Germany, more than 100,000 in Sweden and 50,000 in Austria.

Russia’s efforts to encourage these people to return to Syria have thus far failed. The Syrian refugees will not return to their country until security, stability and the rule of law have been guaranteed and there is an end to corruption and repression.

Many of the refugees want to see the elimination of the security agencies associated with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the curbing of those that remain.

Many of them are wanted by the security agencies for participating in demonstrations, online activism, participation in armed combat or “terrorism,” as defined by the regime.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is demanding a political solution before the return of any of the refugees based on the rule of law to guarantee the above.

Some surveys reveal that some Syrian refugees, except those in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, are trying to settle down in their host countries and do not want to return to their country having lost hope that political change is possible.

Some believe that the war could continue for another decade, and it would be better for them to live in a new country.

The situation of the Syrian refugees is different from one country to another, depending on the host country’s culture and how easy it is to accommodate and protect the refugees.

Many of them have been racially or religiously discriminated against, and they may face mountains of red tape, difficulties learning a new language, and a lack of health services.

At a summit meeting held in Helsinki between the US and Russian presidents in July, Russia announced an improvised plan to return 1.7 million refugees to Syria, promising to set up processing centres and to protect them against the Syrian security agencies.

It asked for US and European cooperation, but both declined the request, linking the return of the refugees to a political solution in Syria, something the Russians refuse to discuss outright.

In the meantime, officials in Lebanon and to a lesser extent Jordan are cracking down on the refugees. The Syrian authorities have welcomed the return of refugees from Jordan to southern Syria, enticing them with incentives such as aid and housing.

However, few are returning, despite the often deplorable conditions they are living in in these two countries.

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Jibril Bassel announced in August that Lebanon “supports the immediate return of the refugees even without a political solution” and that “there is no reason for the Syrian refugees to remain in Lebanon.”

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safdy said in July that the return of the Syrian refugees was a “top priority” for his country, and he did not state if this was contingent on a political solution.

Both countries have been receiving billions of dollars from the international community to help them assist the Syrian refugees, and they may have been inflating the toll of refugees on their economies to receive more funds.

Lebanon, with its delicate demographic balance, is concerned that if the refugees remain permanently this could upend the fragile political balance in the country, explaining its hostility towards the Syrian refugees.

Russian pressure on Lebanon and Jordan may lead to some results, but it will do little to change the minds of Europe and the US about separating the return of the refugees from a political solution in Syria.

Russia does not want to see a political solution that would impact the incumbent regime, and it is committed to attempts at reforming the regime, reconciliation deals, and superficially restructuring the security agencies.

It forgets, however, that the Syrian regime has caused the deaths of one million Syrians in a war waged to allow it to remain in power.

It will be difficult for the refugees to return home in the absence of protections required under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

The UN refugee agency the UNHCR has also declared it does not encourage the return of the refugees, even if it will not prevent the return of those wishing to do so.

Most Syrian refugees will not return to their country until there is an end to oppression and political, social and food security. They want to see a democratic political solution in Syria that guarantees their rights and is enshrined in binding UN resolutions.

Russia cannot provide any of this, which means the issue remains contingent on a global consensus that can be the only guarantor of a political solution.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Russian efforts fail on refugees 

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