In late April, reports emerged that Germany’s office for refugees had halted decisions on asylum for Syrian refugees. The reports raised concerns among migrant groups and in the Syrian diaspora that Germany was reassessing the security situation and may declare parts of the country “safe,” and therefore deny asylum claims on that basis.
A small decision, but Germany’s move is part of a series of measures by countries in Europe and the Middle East seeking to push Syrian refugees into returning home. The overall effect has been to shift the conversation from dealing with the refugee crisis, to figuring out how to manage the process of returning refugees, now that the war is drawing to a close. At a conference in Brussels in March on the future of Syria, organized by the European Union and the United Nations, Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, lauded the possibility that 2019 could be the first year since 2011 in which more Syrians “return home than are newly displaced.”
But Syria is not safe. As much as it suits politicians to claim Syria or parts of it are safe, there remain significant obstacles to ensuring that refugees are not in danger once they cross back into Syrian territory.
The first and most obvious problem is that those who return are likely to face immense hardship, with towns and parts of cities in ruins and unlikely to be rebuilt soon. Western countries and international institutions are unwilling to offer reconstruction funds or loans until there is political change. The president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, has suggested that aid be offered to refugees who return home rather than stay abroad, but even that is fraught with logistical difficulties. There is also the likelihood that the regime would seize the funds.
While that regime, its intelligence services and the current justice system remain in place, refugees will be in danger. The assumption behind the idea that Syrians can return is that the primary cause of their displacement was the war itself. It is a comforting assumption and one that governments have held on to for their own reasons. But while the destruction of property and risk of being caught up in the war were significant reasons, another was the danger of being trapped by the dragnet of regime violence.
Many who left did so because members of their family were deliberately killed, targeted either by the regime or by armed militias. Tens of thousands of Syrians have vanished into regime prisons. The intelligence services will be looking for relatives of every one of them. Last year, a Syrian opposition website released a leaked database of 1.5 million people wanted by the regime. It is unlikely to be the only such list. Millions, therefore, are at risk of interrogation, arbitrary detention and worse. The mere absence of war in Syria does not mean the country is safe.
Still the pressure is building. In Germany, the Office for Migration and Refugees confirmed decisions on Syrians were on hold. The interior ministry, which oversees the refugee office, is now in discussions with the foreign ministry, which determines whether any part of Syria is safe. Given the complicated way asylum works in Germany, where arrivals can be granted “subsidiary protection,” a different category to asylum, there will be tens of thousands of Syrians inside the country who will be left in limbo.
They’re not the only ones. In Turkey, which hosts the largest number of refugees of any country, the mood toward Syrian refugees is beginning to turn. Meral Aksener, an ultra-nationalist who stood for the presidency last year, has publicly promised to send home millions of refugees. Other politicians have begun using darker language, with one mayor saying refugees had taken Turkish “children’s livelihood.” This is despite Syrians bringing in investment and building businesses.
In Lebanon, in addition to President Aoun’s publicly-stated concerns about Syrians competing with Lebanese for jobs, authorities are squeezing refugees by removing illegal developments and closing their shops. Aoun took his message of advocating the return of refugees to the Arab League in Tunis and directly to Moscow in April. That same month, a Russian parliamentarian said Iran, Turkey and Russia should organize a conference to facilitate the return of refugees.
Other developments are also increasing the pressure on Syrians to return. Last April, Syria’s government passed Law 10, a directive giving the government the right to redevelop damaged areas without the approval of everyone living there. The law allowed 30 days for property owners in a designated area to apply for compensation; after that, the government can seize their property. Unsurprisingly, the law was criticized as a tool to dispossess those who had fled the war, since most refugees would not be able to provide the necessary documents in that time.
In November, the regime issued a follow-up Law 42 that extended the time period in which property owners could register a claim to a year. This extension actually increases the pressure on Syrians to return: whereas the 30-day limit would simply be impossible for many, a year is more feasible and may tempt many to go back, or give governments an excuse to deny leave to remain.
No doubt most Syrians would prefer to go home. But it is what they will face on their return that ought to be uppermost in the minds of host countries. In a country still at war, with the security services and army more in charge than ever and a legal framework that can permit easy confiscation of refugees’ property, sending Syrians home against their will is merely exchanging one hostile environment for another.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.