What risks do Syrians returning home face?

Amid calls to send Syrian migrants or refugees back home, L’Orient-Le Jour looks at the obstacles awaiting them as they cross the border.

What risks do Syrians returning home face?

Syrian refugees returning to their country through the al-Zamrani crossing, May 14, 2024. (Credit: SANA/AFP)

Arbitrary arrests, compulsory army conscription and destruction of homes are among the risks to which the returnees are exposed.

While waves of so-called “voluntary” returns of Syrian migrants and refugees are currently being organized from Lebanon to Syria, a “dignified” and “secure” return of Syrians upon arrival is subject to many hurdles.

At a time when hostilities against them exploded in Lebanon, and the Assad regime has been reluctant to welcome its nationals with dignity, international humanitarian organizations warned that the conditions for a return of Syrians based on free and informed consent have not been established yet.

Arrests and reprisals

In recent months, cases of enforced disappearance have been recorded among Syrians who returned to their country, said Sahar Mandour, Lebanon researcher at Amnesty International. She recalled the case of over 100 refugees deported from Lebanon in April 2023 and handed over to the Syrian armed forces after crossing the Lebanese border.

“They separated men from women and children, and several of these men were reportedly detained for protesting against the government in 2011, while many others were ordered to join the army within three days or face detention.”

In a September 2021 report, Amnesty International documented a catalog of violations committed by Syrian intelligence officers against 66 returnees to Syria, including illegal or arbitrary detention, torture, rape and other sexual violence, as well as forcible disappearance.

Potential “voluntary returnees” also seem to be facing these risks. “Syrian refugees who voluntarily returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021 were victims of serious human rights violations and persecution. This included torture, but also extrajudicial executions and kidnappings,” said Ramzi Kaiss, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

As part of the organized departures from Lebanon, the list of people wishing to return is approved in advance by the Syrian authorities, in coordination with Lebanese General Security. “Generally speaking, the regime does not want these returnees because they are perceived as a security threat. It considers that they left the country after the 2011 revolution,” said Joseph Daher, professor at the University of Lausanne.

According to the Syrian opposition Sawt Al-Asima media site, the National Security Bureau, Syria’s highest security authority, recently issued new instructions to embassies and consulates outside Syria. It prohibited deserters from the army, security services and the Interior Ministry, as well as government employees who have left the country, from obtaining Syrian passports abroad or from immigration services in Syria through their families and relatives, the website reported.

Given the risk of retaliation by the regime, some Lebanese politicians proposed sending Syrian refugees back on a case-by-case basis, depending on their identity and political affiliation.

“To put it simply, if you’re an opponent, you go to Idlib [the last bastion of the Syrian opposition], if you’re Kurdish, you go to the Kurdish areas and if you’re pro-regime, you go to the regime-controlled areas,” said Daher. “It doesn’t make sense.” That is particularly true since some would have to cross hostile zones.

As the Assad regime struggles to regain control of the whole country, an escalation is sweeping across Idlib, where strikes are being carried out by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally. This is while Kurdish areas are regularly being targeted by Turkish attacks. Crackdowns on opponents continue across the country.

Compulsory conscription

One of the major concerns Syrian refugees have when considering returning to their country is the risk of being forced to join military service, which is compulsory for every male aged between 18 and 42, especially since the amnesty for those who refused conscription expired in April 2019.

According to Syria’s military penal code, in wartime, rebellion against compulsory conscription is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. In addition, a February 2021 legislative amendment empowered the Finance Ministry to confiscate without notice and immediately sell the property of people who have reached the age of 43 without having completed their compulsory military service or paid the exemption fee (up to $8,000), excluding the possibility for the person concerned to challenge the decision.

“There’s a whole business behind it,” said Daher. “At the border, they have to give money to Syrian customs officers up to a certain amount to avoid going to prison. These threats affect everyone, regardless of political affiliation.”

Economic crisis and confiscated property

Faced with the country’s disastrous socio-economic situation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that almost 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, and over 15 million need humanitarian aid.

“Economic opportunities in Syria are not big, salaries are very low and the cost of living is extremely high,” said Daher.

According to the OCHA, the Syrian lira has lost around half its value against the US dollar, hitting a record low in July 2023. The Central Bank of Syria devalued the official rate to 9,900 Syrian lira to the dollar, down from around 6,500 in early 2023. Deprived of opportunities and sufficient aid to survive in their own country, many Syrians still prefer to suffer poor working and living conditions in xenophobic environments.

Another issue is the uncertainty for Syrian returnees about returning to their houses. Since 2012, the Syrian regime has adopted new regulations making it difficult for Syrian people to reclaim their homes in the event of prolonged absence. In 2018, the regime passed a law to designate specific areas for reconstruction. If the owners of residences in said zones failed to present proof of ownership within a year, the land or property would be transferred to local authorities, who also regularly expropriate residents, even when documents are provided.

“These people have lost their homes, they were taken by war criminals or destroyed during the war,” said Daher. “So, to come back, okay, but to come back where?”

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Joelle El Khoury.

Arbitrary arrests, compulsory army conscription and destruction of homes are among the risks to which the returnees are exposed.While waves of so-called “voluntary” returns of Syrian migrants and refugees are currently being organized from Lebanon to Syria, a “dignified” and “secure” return of Syrians upon arrival is subject to many hurdles.At a time when hostilities against them...