Anchal Vohra is a reporter based in Beirut.
As the Syrian war draws to an end and the barrel bombs stop terrorizing the country, Syrians are being encouraged to return home by the countries to which they have fled. Those who do so, however, are finding the persecution that caused them to flee has not gone away. Some Syrians who have returned have disappeared into the country’s notorious prison system, a stark reminder of the dangers the country’s former refugees face.
Foreign Policy has spoken to the relatives of two such Syrians, and activists claim there are many more. Several others, meanwhile, have been rounded up and conscripted into the army.
Syria was and continues to be a police state with the same government and the same security apparatus in place, which is accused of thousands of politically motivated detentions. But governments hosting large numbers of refugees, including Lebanon and Germany, are under domestic political pressure to give incentives to refugees to go back home. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned governments against forcible returns, which would be in contravention of international law. Even as host countries comply with this instruction, however, they continue to design policies that produce similar results, to the growing alarm of both refugees and activists.
One young man, Asser, chose to go back home from Germany after he was unable to surmount the bureaucratic hurdles preventing him from having his fiancée from Syria join him. An additional incentive was the German government’s offer of a 1,200 euro grant (roughly $1,300) to help him return to Syria—and the rising anti-refugee sentiment in his new home country.
Two weeks after arriving back in Damascus, he was called in for questioning at the local intelligence branch. He phoned his family and told them he would be home soon. He has not been heard from since. His parents, who remain anonymous to protect them from regime retaliation, paid a mediator, who found out that Asser had been detained. Such go-betweens are widely used to gather information on the disappeared and imprisoned because officially no such information is made available by the government.
Asser’s cousin, still based in Germany, told FP his story, also on the condition of anonymity. “He tried several times to claim the reunion [with his fiancée], but he couldn’t,” he said. “He missed her and started to feel tired and depressed. That’s the most important reason he left.”
The German government grant Asser used to return home is part of a scheme known as Starthilfe, which loosely translates to “help to get started.” Germany has budgeted $43 million for the program, ostensibly to ease the financial pressures of people who have already decided to return home. Critics say, however, that the program is a push factor driving refugees to risk going home.
Yasim, another Syrian who left Germany under similar circumstances, has also disappeared. His cousin Mohammad, still based in Germany, said Yasim could not obtain the papers required to enable his wife to join him. All their documents had been destroyed in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee settlement in southern Damascus where they had lived, in fighting between the government and rebels.
“He left Germany and was detained near the Lebanese-Syria border. We don’t know anything about him after that,” Mohammad said, adding that without his wife Yasim had found it difficult to adjust to life in Germany, a culture alien to him. “He could not cope with it.”
No one is accusing Germany of acting illegally in Asser’s and Yasim’s cases. They both returned voluntarily. But the lingering backlash to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy toward refugees in 2015 has forced the government to pursue policies that are ultimately placing Syrian refugees in the same danger from which they had fled. The dynamic raises questions of whether governments have a duty of care toward refugees who return, beyond the letter of the law.
Thousands of Syrian citizens have simply disappeared into the regime’s prison system, with no record of their fate or whereabouts, since the start of the war, and returning refugees are especially vulnerable to such harsh treatment. Some of those now living as refugees took part in protests or are suspected of being rebels. Some have relatives who were, even if they themselves were not. The regime has also indicated that it regards the very act of leaving the country as grounds for suspicion.
Bellinda Bartolucci, a legal policy advisor for the German refugee rights organization Pro Asyl, said Berlin’s decision to restrict family reunion could force people who ran from war and torture to make dramatic choices, including returning to a country where they face being “persecuted, killed, or living in inhuman conditions.” Bartolucci said the German government seemed not to fully understand the impact of its policies. She said while the German government was not violating international law, there remained ethical questions to answer if it was contributing to the decision to return for people who still ran the risk of persecution. “One should ask oneself if this is the understanding of human rights that should be promoted,” she said.
Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch said a combination of push factors could amount to refoulement, or forcible return, even in the absence of a formal policy. “Under the concept of ‘constructive refoulement,’ the cumulative effect of conditions in the host country, none of which alone would violate the principle of nonrefoulement, can effectively force a refugee to return in violation of customary international law,” he said.
Ahmad Hosain, the CEO of the U.K.-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, has been specifically tracking the return of Syrian Palestinian refugees. Both Asser and Yasim were Syrian Palestinians. He said that in December 2018, Syrian government forces had arrested several Palestinian refugees who returned to Syria from a European country after their appeals for family reunification were rebuffed. “The group of refugees were detained after police at the Damascus Airport summoned them to questioning at the Palestine Branch,” Hosain said. “Their condition and whereabouts have been shrouded in mystery.”
Yousef Wehbe, a Syrian activist based in Germany, had also heard of this group of arrests. He said he believed that there were now enough testimonies to raise questions over the German policy. “The Germans are not forcing them to go back, but if someone wants to return, then they let them go,” he said. “Ethically, there are issues. I believe they are conducting a campaign to encourage people to go back. In an ideal situation, they would say it was still unsafe, but German politics is not allowing them to do so.”
Hosain said at least three people returning to Syria from Lebanon had also disappeared. The Lebanese government claims 110,000 Syrians have voluntarily returned to Syria in the last year—the official UNHCR figure is 17,000. Elena Hodges, a researcher with the Beirut-based Sawa for Development and Aid, said the numbers released by Lebanon’s government agency were inflated and their assertion that people had left voluntarily was a contentious issue. “What’s up for debate here is where to draw the line between ‘forcible’ and ‘voluntary,’” she said.
From the very beginning of the Syrian war, Lebanon has made it difficult for the more than a million Syrian refugees to stay in the country. It imposed restrictions on employment and made it hard and expensive to acquire legal residency. Many refugees found themselves with rising debts and food shortages. Now thousands of children have been forced into early marriages or to beg on the streets. Most Syrians in Lebanon say they still think it is unsafe to go back. Some say they are only doing so because they find it impossible to live in the miserable conditions allowed to them.
“The government of Lebanon holds that all returns are so far voluntary and that it is therefore respecting the principle of nonrefoulement,” Hodges said. “Rights advocates and civil society organizations argue that the increasing pressure on refugees to return coupled with deteriorating conditions in host countries and unabated protection risks in Syria add up to a context where returns will be involuntary by default.”
The 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention says clearly that compulsory returns are disallowed if “life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” It is quiet, however, on the responsibility of host countries toward refugees who return voluntarily. Activists are now demanding that UNHCR representatives be present every time a Syrian files for return so that he or she can be given accurate advice of the security on the ground, taking into account their personal circumstances. Although detentions can be random, those connected with anti-government protests face a more severe threat.
It is true that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies are for the moment no longer raining bombs on areas they have reclaimed. However, his security apparatus, accused of ordering torture, thousands of illegal detentions, and extrajudicial killings, is still in place. Last summer, perhaps unwittingly, the Syrian government renewed focus on its record of human rights abuses when it began releasing the death certificates of hundreds who died while incarcerated. Human Rights Watch says detentions are also continuing of those who remained in rebel areas after they were recaptured by the regime, such as the province of Daraa, which surrendered to government forces in July 2018.
Based on the accounts being shared by families with the activists, the numbers of returnees being persecuted are still comparatively small. There is still time to protect them. But host nations, keen to meet the demands of their electorates, appear to be victims of wishful thinking about the dangers that remain.