Returning Syrian refugees face death and disappearance

Returning Syrian refugees face death and disappearance
5 min read
07 November, 2018
Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon have been killed and disappeared by regime forces.
Some Syrian refugees have returned from Lebanon [Getty]

At least twenty refugees that have returned to Syria from Lebanon have been killed by the regime and their allied forces, Lebanese Caretaker Minister for Refugee Affairs Mouin Merehbi announced on Saturday.

He mentioned one case in particular of two teenage boys and their father who he said were killed at the end of last month.

"The information received… also shows they were killed by a senior official in the Syrian regime's army," Merehbi said, adding that the total death toll could be even higher.

Meanwhile, family members of those who returned are fearing the worst. 

Bushra al-Abdullah is still trying to find her husband. He disappeared after being stopped by Syrian border guards at the Syria-Lebanon border at the end of July. 

My family was among those who were approved. My husband was detained despite [this]
Bushra, her husband and two children were on their way back from Lebanon to their home in a western suburb of Damascus, as part of a programme known as "the voluntary return of refugees".

"Those who wanted to return were put on a list of names - some were approved and others were refused," Bushra, who is staying at a relative's house in Damascus told The New Arab. "My family was among those who were approved. My husband was detained despite the fact the return process took place through communication between the Lebanese municipality in the area and regime representatives, and the regime checked the list of names."

Bushra's family has suffered the same fate as many returning refugees, or civilians in formerly rebel-held areas who have made peace with the regime after obtaining guarantees of security, according to Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, head of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research.  

The regime requires refugees returning to have all documents, including identity cards, civil documents and passports. Missing any documents is an obstacle to return, according to statements by three refugees who returned from Lebanon to regime areas of control.

The website of the Syrian Foreign Ministry states the "Syrian Arab Republic may grant a return ticket to citizens in several cases, including the loss of a passport or travel document, non possession of a passport. The ticket is valid only for return to Syria, and is given for a fee of $25 or equivalent in euros".

Russia began what it called "voluntary repatriation", addressing host countries and establishing a destribution centre in cooperation with the regime in Damascus.  

Major General Hassan Ahmed Hassan has vowed to guarantee their rights along with other citizens and to preserve their dignity, but al-Bunni, the lawyer, emphasised that "no formal law has been issued to deal with returning refugees".

The total number of Syrian refugees is at least 5.6 million, according to the latest UNHCR statistics issued on 24 September. This includes 3.5 million refugees in Turkey, 2 million Syrians registered with UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon and 33,000 refugees registered in North Africa.

Syrians returning from countries of asylum face the risk of arrest according to Al-Bunni, citing the case of civilians who remained in formerly besieged areas which reconciled with the regime, including east Aleppo, Deraa, Ghouta al-Sharqia and rural areas around Homs.

Cases of arrests or forced military conscription have been documented, despite the regime committing to grant a one-year amnesty. Additionally, many Syrians have been refused the right to re-enter their homes.

Syrians for Truth and Justice, a group based in Istanbul, has documented the arrest of 26 people in Deraa, who were previously granted "security", as well as 19 in Ghouta, and 11 members of the White Helmets who had been attempting to cross from northern Syria to regime-controlled areas.

According to the organisation these arrests were carried out despite the commitment of regular forces not to harm any people of Douma, and not to allow its troops to enter the city, except those civilian police needed to maintain order.

Syria has recorded no fewer than 8,000 kidnappings between the beginning of the uprising and July 20, 2017.
The refugees are generally being persecuted or subject to arrest, or forced military service

According to the al-Watan newspaper, the former attorney-general in Damascus, Maher al-Olabi, has threatened that the pressure exerted by Russia is a violation of the 1951 refugee convention.

"The refugees are generally being persecuted or subject to arrest, or forced military service," said al-Olabi. "There is a great danger of Iran-backed militias close to Iran in several areas of Syria and they pose a real threat to returnees in those areas, and the Syrian regime is unable to control them, there is kidnapping and extortion."

The head of the Syrian centre for legal studies said the regime did not want refugees to return, citing Bashar al-Assad himself saying that Syrians "are those who defend the country, not ones who merely hold its passport", and that the regime is not serious about any guarantees of safety for those returning. 

Salman al-Hawi added that Russia and the regime's attempts to make it appear as if regugees were returning was just an attempt to persuade Europe to contribute to the financing and reconstruction of Syria under the pretence of securing the lives of refugees in their own country, instead of hosting them in Europe.  

It would also force Europe to deal with the Syrian regime and recognise it as a legitimate government.

"How does the Syrian regime talk about its desire to return the refugees to their homes after being indifferent and trying to displace the people of Idlib through a military operation?" Al-Bunni said.

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