Men carry mattresses at a refugee camp for people displaced in fightings between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Ain Issa, Syria October 14, 2017.  Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Men carry mattresses at a refugee camp for people displaced in fightings between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Ain Issa, Syria October 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

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 might declare parts of Syria “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 to return 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 the first year since 2011 in which more Syrians “return home than are newly displaced.”

But 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 be faced with 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. Lebanon’s president, 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, and the likelihood the Syrian government would seize the funds.

While Bashar al-Assad’s regime, its intelligence services and its justice system remain in place, returning refugees will be in danger

While Bashar al-Assad’s regime, its intelligence services and its justice system remain in place, returning refugees will be in danger.

The assumption that lies behind the idea that Syrians can return is that the primary cause of their displacement was the war itself. That 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 was a significant reason, another was the danger of being trapped by the dragnet of violence by the Assad regime.

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 government prisons. The intelligence services will be seeking relatives of every one of those, and of the unknown more that they are still hunting.

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.

Thus 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 that 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 are not the only ones. In Turkey, which hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country, the mood toward them 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 speaking in 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 worries publicly expressed by President Aoun that Syrians are competing with Lebanese for jobs, authorities are squeezing refugees by removing illegal developments and closing their shops. Aoun took his message that the refugees must begin to return 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.

In April last year, Syria’s government passed Law 10, a directive that gave the regime the ability 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 could seize their property. Unsurprisingly, the law was criticized as a tool to dispossess those who had fled the war, since most refugees would not have been able to provide the appropriate documents in that time.

In November, the regime issued a follow-up Law 42 that extended the period property owners had to register a claim to a year. This extension actually increases the pressure on Syrians to return: Whereas the 30-day limit would simply have been impossible for many, a year is more possible and may tempt many to go back, or give cover for governments 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 easily allow for the confiscation of refugees’ property, sending Syrians home against their will is merely exchanging one hostile environment for another.

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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