Copenhagen – 10 March 2022
Good morning everyone, my name is Haya Atassi and I am the Media Manager at the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD), and I’m a displaced Syrian myself.
The Association is a grassroots popular movement established to promote, protect and secure the rights of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) wherever they are.
We are fighting to ensure the right of a safe, voluntary and dignified return of all Syrian refugees and IDPs, and the effective implementation of a safe environment in Syria according to the definition of the Syrian displaced people themselves, which is the only sustainable way to get Syrians safely back to their homes, our ultimate goal.
We at SACD are against any form of forced or premature return of refugees and IDPs given that nowhere in Syria is safe at this point in time, and it has been that way since the early stages of the conflict, especially in areas under the control of the Assad regime.
We know this based on the continuous work over the last three years on gathering information inside Syria and among displaced, information we presented in multiple in-depth reports on security and living conditions in Syria, which included views and perceptions of people living there, as well as in displacement.
There are no indications on the ground that things are going in the right direction, and this is why the Association works on several fronts to prevent policies or change in narrative that would lead to a forced return of displaced Syrians or a normalization of the current situation.
Ever since the first indication that the government of Denmark may pass a decision to withdraw protection from Syrian refugees, SACD has worked to engage with Danish authorities and other relevant institutions to prevent what has become a dangerous precedent, which may endanger countless Syrians who sought refuge in third countries from the repression and deadly persecution they faced and are still facing in Syria, especially in the regime controlled areas
Even before that, we addressed the EU bodies, of which Denmark is an active member, providing documentation and evidence that Syrian refugees who are forced to return to Assad-held areas in Syria face detention, forced disappearance, torture, death, forced conscription, extortion and harassment, all documented in our reports based on surveys with Syrians in regime-controlled areas, using our privileged access to these communities, an access that is unfortunately beyond reach to international and UN organizations, including UNHCR.
An important note to take into account: regime-controlled areas are also controlled by Russia and Iranian sectarian militias.
Since July 2020, we held meetings with western envoys to Syria and MFAs, worked with international human rights groups and issued public documents to demonstrate the flawed and contradictory nature of the Danish Refugee Council’s assessment that Damascus and Damascus Countryside are safe for return of Syrian refugees.
Ultimately, in April last year we addressed the Minister of Immigration and Integration of Denmark, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Refugee Appeals Board directly, through a submission that firmly established how the Denmark’s decision is in direct breach of the Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the UNHCR protection thresholds and Denmark’s own previous statements on the reality in Assad-held areas.
Minister of Immigration and Integration, Mattias Tesfaye, in his correspondence with SACD, has failed to adequately justify their decision to withdraw protection of Syrian refugees, or answer some of the key questions on the policy which has placed Denmark among the countries that are exerting pressure on Syrian refugees to return to what is an unsafe, and potentially deadly, situation in Assad-held areas of Syria.
Instead, he directed all responsibility for the policy to the Danish Immigration Service and Refugee Appeals Board.
On the other hand, the COI reports and the subsequent assessment used by the Refugee Appeals Board (RAB), clearly failed to document and relay the real threat facing refugees if they were to return; they failed to illustrate the ongoing insecurity and systematic repression endured by individuals in these areas now.
The assessment included deep contradictions between the information it contains and the final conclusions it makes. A decrease in military activity does not mean an improvement in the security situation for returnees if they are supposed to return into the hands of a repressive regime.
Prior to this conference, SACD was in touch with the experts who were interviewed for the Danish Immigration Service report on Damascus, and they all indicated that the decision to remove temporary protection from Syrian refugees from these areas did not at all reflect the information they provided.
Most of them will refuse to collaborate with DIS in the future, or will do so under strict conditions to prevent the misuse of their interviews.
This is what one of them, Elizabeth Tsurkov, Research fellow at New Lines Institute, stated: “The conclusion reached by the Danish Immigration Authority is absolutely contrary to my understanding or reality in Damascus and its countryside. Multiple human rights organizations have documented cases of returnees being arrested and tortured, sometimes to death, by the Syrian regime. The DIS reached out to me last month asking to do an interview with me about the situation in Hasakeh. I wrote back to them refusing to participate to avoid becoming complicit in deportations of individuals from that region. The way the DIS used my responses was contrary to my intentions and was carefully curated and selected to prove the point they wanted to reach, likely due to political pressure. No part of Syria is safe.”
It is well documented that the situation in Damascus and Damascus countryside, as well as the rest of Syria, is absolutely not safe for refugees to return without being exposed to a risk of arbitrary arrest, torture and inhumane treatment and any extradition or transfer of Syrian refugees to Damascus or any other part of Syria, particularly areas held by the Syrian regime, would constitute a breach of the Article 3 of ECHR.
To Illustrate this point, allow me to quote several paragraphs only from the January and February reports of the Syrian Network for Human Rights on arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearances in Damascus and its suburbs, which are seen as safe to return by the Denmark’s authorities.
“Syrian regime forces continued in January to persecute and arrest individuals who had concluded settlements of their security status. These arrests have been concentrated in Damascus Suburbs and Daraa governorates, with most occurring during campaigns of mass raids and arrests and at checkpoints.
We also recorded random incidents of arrests of citizens in Damascus Suburbs governorate, with most occurring during campaigns of mass raids and arrests, which we believe were based on malicious security reports issued due to the targeted individuals’ opposition to the Syrian regime. In addition, we documented arrests carried out by the regime’s security services of civilians who had previously been released from regime detention centers, with these arrests being carried out with the aim of materially extorting the families of detainees. We also documented arrests targeting a number of returning civilians, all refugees and IDPs, after they returned to their original areas, now back under the control of Syrian regime forces;
On Tuesday, January 4, 2022, personnel from the Syrian regime’s Political Security Force carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in Qedsayya city in Damascus Suburbs governorate. SNHR documented the arrest of seven civilians, all of whom had previously settled their security status, with all the detainees being taken to an undisclosed location.
On Thursday, January 13, 2022, personnel from the Syrian regime’s Military Security Force carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in Khan al Sheeh town, west of Damascus Suburbs governorate. SNHR documented the arrest of six civilians, who were taken to one of the regime’s detention centers in al Keswa city to the south of Damascus Suburbs governorate.
On Friday, January 14, 2022, Syrian regime forces personnel carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in the neighborhoods of al Shamiya and al Wadi in al Hama town, west of Damascus Suburbs governorate. SNHR documented the arrest of three civilians, who were taken to one of the regime’s detention centers in Damascus city.
On Wednesday, February 23, 2022, personnel from the Syrian regime’s Military Security Force carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in Qedsayya city in Damascus Suburbs governorate. SNHR documented the arrest of five civilians, who were taken to an undisclosed location.
In February 2022, SNHR documented at least 203 cases of arbitrary arrests, including 13 children and 11 women (adult female), at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria. The largest number of arbitrary arrests was carried out by Syrian regime forces in the governorates of Damascus Suburbs, Daraa, then Damascus.
SNHR also recorded an increase in the number of victims documented in February as having been killed under torture. The reason behind the high death toll recorded this month is that the Syrian regime informed 56 families from Deir al Asafeir town in Damascus Suburbs governorate that their relatives who had been arrested by the Syrian regime had died in custody. SNHR believes that the regime’s method of notifying detainees’ families of their loved ones’ death is an additional illustration of the cruelty of the method of enforced disappearance, where the regime’s first arrest these individuals, then forcibly disappear them, denying any knowledge of their whereabouts, and then ultimately simply issue notification of their loved ones’ deaths. In almost all cases detainees’ deaths were caused by torture exacerbated by lack of healthcare. The SNHR’s records of enforced disappearance cases show that these individuals, all of whom were arrested in 2018, died under torture in Seydnaya Military Prison.”
This is the reality in Damascus and its suburbs today, as we speak. The rest of Syria is the same, if not much worse.
And this reality has been greatly shaped by an actor whose crimes we are all witnessing these days in Ukraine.
There are about 6.6 million Syrian refugees who fled their country, while 6.2 million are displaced within Syria. The scale of displacement has skyrocketed ever since the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 and its war on the Syrian people.
Russia did not only actively participate in killing and displacing Syrians, destroying their cities, and depriving them of means of life, but also is currently spending enormous efforts to normalize the Syrian regime and reap the fruits of its intervention in Syria.
Since 2018 Russia has been actively lobbying to convince European countries and the EU to adopt 2 main game changing policies: send Syrian refugees back to Syria without any change in the security conditions, and start financing reconstruction in Syria before any legitimate, sustainable and comprehensive political solution in Syria.
While Russia is pressuring the West to send Syrian refugees back to Syria, it failed to create a single safe area in Syria despite having full control over large areas. The reconciliation agreements that were pitched and sponsored by Russia as a model for return have failed catastrophically. In areas like Daraa and Eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside, such agreements only led to further displacement, lack of security and safety and serve as proof of regime’s and Russia’s empty promises.
The atrocities currently witnessed in Ukraine are only a fraction of what Russia has done in Syria. Imagine asking Ukrainian refugees to go back to an occupied part of Ukraine in the near future, and imagine hosting countries telling them that Ukraine under Russian occupation is safe!!! This is what Syrians are being asked to do.
Russia’s interest in claiming that Syria is safe lies in entrenching its military gains into permanent control of the country. Russia keeps hosting conferences on refugee return in Damascus, the last one in July 2021.
Denmark cannot afford the damage to its image of a democratic country to be the only European state whose policy on return of Syrian refugees in fact aligns with that of Russia. Any policy that pushes Syrian refugees into an unsafe and immature return essentially serves Russia’s interests.
Sending Syrians back to the current Syria will only contribute to further violence, instability and an increase in displacement rates, as more than 67% of people who were forced to return today have stated to us that they will attempt to leave again at first opportunity, this time permanently.
Denmark, and other European countries hosting Syrian refugees, must be well aware of the implications of such policies of premature return, which not only threaten the lives of the Syrians but also will have ramifications that will reverberate on the region and Europe as well and will threaten any hope of peace and stability.
The irresponsible policy to strip Syrian refugees from protection, and put them in a situation that forces them to return, acts as a dangerous precedent to refugee hosting countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and potentially other European countries.
We believe that it is unacceptable for a country like Denmark to try to solve the refugee issue based on internal politics and inaccurate assessments, resulting in policies that violate human rights, are in direct violation of EU regulations and interests, and align with Russia’s interests, rather than advocating as an active European member for an EU position to promote a truly safe environment in Syria with a comprehensive political solution to ensure a safe, voluntary, and dignified return for refugees.
We stress that neither the Syrian regime nor Russia can be guarantors of any peace or security in Syria – this fact must be well accepted. The main drivers of displacement cannot be part of any safe environment in Syria. International community, especially refugee hosting countries, must work towards achieving a comprehensive political solution under a safe environment in Syria that guarantees the safe, dignified and voluntary return of Syrians, and use available diplomatic and economic leverage to do that. The situation in Ukraine showed us that such leverage exists and can be used when there is political will.
If the world would have listened to Syrians years ago, if the world would have taken Russia’s crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Syria seriously maybe we could have prevented the disastrous situation we have today in the Ukraine.
Let’s not repeat the same mistake again, let’s not cave into what Russia and other oppressive regimes want, Europe cannot appease the murderous Russian and Syrian regimes, Denmark’s policies cannot serve Russia’s agenda in Syria, and cannot be the cause of more suffering to Syrians.
View the full conference here: