Istanbul, Beirut, 20 June 2022 – On World Refugee Day, we take the opportunity to raise global awareness of the hurdle facing Syrian refugees who are not sufficiently informed about the dangers facing them in Syria should they be forced to return in the current reality. We call on the UNHCR to fulfill its responsibility to inform Syrian refugees and IDPs of the reality in Syria and prevent the unsafe and premature return of displaced Syrians to an unsafe Syria.
We remind the world of the 13 million displaced Syrians, of whom nearly 5.6 million are refugees, who were forced to leave behind their lives, take risky trips by sea and land, pay hefty amounts of money, simply for reaching a safe haven. Today, after more than a decade, there are schemes to force the Syrian refugees to go back to the very same reality they escaped, for the sake of arbitrarily resolving the displacement crisis and pave the way for a full normalization with the Syrian regime.
With ample evidence of violations against returnees, the policies by some host countries that force Syrians to go back and the increasing hate speech and racism targeting refugees, it has become more important than ever to address the fact that Syrians are not only being deprived from their right to seek asylum but also from their right to know the reality in Syria before return. And while it is the responsibility of the UNHCR to properly inform displaced Syrians of the reality facing them in Syria, it is failing in doing so, so far.
“Every returnee to Syria is a potential detainee. The Syrian regime has proven that its promises are empty and cannot be trusted, and what we saw in the latest Amnesty Law No. 7 of 2022 illustrates that very well,” said Hala, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey.
According to Voice of Displaced Syrians Forum (VDSF) research, 41 per cent of returnees reported that their return was not voluntary. While the safe, voluntary and dignified return is recognized by the UNHCR as an indispensable right for the displaced, yet a critical component of this safe, voluntary and dignified return is access to reliable information about whether it is safe to return. This information helps the displaced understand whether their return conditions have been met, as well as the process involved. In particular, it might help highlight any inconsistencies between the process and their legal rights as refugees and IDPs to return home without fear of harassment or targeting.
Our research has clearly demonstrated that Syrians do not have sufficient information, especially when it comes to security threats facing them if they are forced to return to regime-held areas in particular. There, they are likely to face arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance, torture, extortion, forced recruitment and harassment. To even go back they must obtain security clearances and so called ‘reconciliation documents’, which not only don’t shield them from persecution, but also may incriminate them.
“We fled not because someone says Damascus is safe or not safe, but for fear of arrest, pursuit and oppression,” said Tarek, a Syrian refugee in Denmark who was stripped from protection by Danish authorities but won the appeal in court, “I cannot go back to a place where my fate is unknown without any guarantees for my family’s safety.”
Previous SACD research shows that a staggering 87 per cent of surveyed Syrian refugees were confident that they had enough information through informal channels to judge whether their return conditions had been met in their areas of origin; informal sources such as family and media were their main sources of information. However, further questioning revealed they were unaware of critical and potentially life-threatening components of the regime’s requirements for return.
That being said, the UNHCR and other relevant UN agencies must, therefore, cease the misleading messaging on the “improving security situation” for returnees, and improve communication, information, and counseling with Syria’s displaced to ensure they are aware of all factors and conditions that might impact their returns’ decisions, including information about how current conditions and returns procedures impact their rights, and make this communication approach an integral part of future media campaigns.
- Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD)
- Voices for Displaced Syrians Forum (VDSF)
- Syrian Networks League (SNL)