The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hosted a conference in Damascus on November 11-12 with the aim of convincing millions of Syrian refugees to return home. The United Nations and European Union declined invitations to send representatives, calling the conference “premature.”
Still, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad doubled down on November 17, insisting that Syria is making tremendous efforts to ensure the safe and unconditional return of Syrian refugees. His comments came during a televised dialogue with a Russian delegation concerning a purported “media war against Syria.” Syrian-Russian committees were meeting on the refugee issue.
“Western countries are hindering [refugees’] return so they can use them to put political pressure on Syria,” Mekdad said. “These countries are using the pain of every Syrian refugee outside their homeland to serve their political ends.”
That narrative is false, however. In fact, many Syrian refugees won’t go back home because Syria has not met the United Nations-mandated conditions for their safe return.
The 10-year civil war in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people and forced 5 million others to seek refuge in more than 127 countries. Most refugees fled to neighboring countries, with Turkey hosting more than 3.7 million. Another 844,000 are in Lebanon, while 672,000 are in Jordan and 250,000 are in Iraq.
More than 6 million Syrians are internally displaced.
With the support of Russia and Iran, Syrian government forces have retaken territory previously controlled by the Assad opposition. The country remains in ruins, but the Syrian government has been calling on refugees to return home anyway.
To do so, Syrian refugees must pass through checkpoints where they risk interrogation, arrest and detention by Syrian government forces or allied militias. A political solution to the conflict that would guarantee refugees a safe and voluntary return home remains elusive.
On November 10, 2020, the eve of the Damascus conference on Syrian refugees, EU officials said conditions in Syria do not permit the large-scale return of refugees.
“The limited returns that have taken place illustrate the many obstacles and threats still faced by returning internally displaced persons and refugees, in particular forced conscription, indiscriminate detention, forced disappearances, torture, physical and sexual violence, discrimination in access to housing, land and property as well as poor or inexistent basic services,” the EU statement read.
In 2018, the U.N. issued its Protection Thresholds and Parameters for Refugee Return to Syria, detailing the conditions required for the safe and a voluntary return of refugees.
Those conditions included a significant decrease of hostilities, the conclusion of formal agreements with host countries to receive the returnees, genuine guarantees from Syria’s government that refugees will not be harmed in any way, and an informed and genuinely voluntary return of refugees without coercion.
So far, the Syrian government has met none of those U.N. conditions.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published in October detailed the accounts of 65 Syrian refugees who had returned from Jordan and Lebanon. HRW said returnees were the victims of arbitrary arrests, torture and harssment, forced conscription into the Syrian army, involuntary or enforced disappearances, and summary executions.
“The same government is in power that committed crimes against humanity, persecuted those that expressed dissent, and caused millions to flee. Widespread human rights abuses continue, and refugees who return often face the same persecution from which they fled,” HRW said.
The New York City-based human rights watchdog added that the Syrian government is hindering efforts to monitor returning refugees.
An Amnesty International report published in September, “You’re Going to Your Death,” documented violations by Syrian intelligence officers against 66 returnees, including sexual violence, torture and enforced disappearance.
“The Assad government has attempted to depict Syria as a country in recovery. The reality is that Syrian authorities are still perpetrating the widespread and systematic human rights violations that contributed to millions of people seeking safety abroad,” the London human rights group said.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reported in September that economic woes, COVID-19 and continued human rights violations through air strikes, targeted killings, and arbitrary and incommunicado detention, had worsened the human rights situation for many Syrians.
“The Syrian Arab republic does not yet offer a safe and stable environment for sustainable and dignified returns of refugees, nor for the 6.7 million displaced persons inside the country.” the commission’s report stated.
Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said while briefing the U.N. General Assembly on October 25: “As we speak, millions of civilians continue to be condemned to war, terror, and grief. Many of those displaced have seen their properties destroyed or seized by the Government, armed groups or terrorist groups – they have little left to return to and little prospects for their livelihoods.”