Arab League to implement scheme 'returning' Syrian refugees amid regime reconciliation

Arab League to implement scheme 'returning' Syrian refugees amid regime reconciliation
Syrian refugees are at risk of torture, abuse and arrest - as well as living in dire conditions - if they return to Syria, rights groups have said.
3 min read
19 May, 2023
There are close to six million Syrian refugees globally, with the majority concentrated in neighbouring countries [Getty]

Arab League members are reportedly planning to send Syrian refugees back to their war-torn country, despite warnings from rights groups of dire consequences if they return.

Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi foreign ministers reportedly put together a scheme last month to encourage the repatriation of refugees, shortly before most Arab states agreed to reinstate the Assad regime back into Arab League ahead of a summit held in Jeddah on Friday.

Syrian regime leader Bashar Al-Assad attended the meeting and made a speech at the summit, while some Arab heads of states warmly greeted the dictator.

The proposal, which was first brought up by Jordan two years ago, is reportedly being discussed "at the highest level", sources told The Financial Times.

Human rights groups have expressed alarm over the possible return of Syrian refugees amid the regime’s readmission to the League, amid worries over safety, disease and extreme poverty in the country.

This includes the continued repression carried out by the Syrian regime who have disappeared as many as 130,000 people since peaceful protests broke out in 2011.

Moreover, economic conditions remain dire in Syria, with 90 percent of the population living below the poverty line as of October 2022.

Syrians who were already returned have detailed experiences of arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, abuse, and torture at the hands of regime intelligence agencies or militias.

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Arab diplomats went on to say that the refugee return scheme is a "way to see if Assad is trusted to make reforms", according to The FT.

"There’s a view that the government in Syria is not sincere, is not serious, but the only way to test that seriousness is through this meaningful process," one diplomat said. "Otherwise how would you be able to test it?"

Should the scheme be enacted, Arab states said they will attempt to convince US and European powers to lift sanctions imposed on key Syrian regime figures, that they claim will aid the "reconstruction" of the devastated country.

The move comes as Syria was readmitted into the Arab League in May following a near 12-year suspension implemented in the aftermath of the killing of thousands of protesters in 2011. An armed uprising has led to 500,000 Syrians being killed, the vast majority civilians victims of regime shelling and bombing.

Syria’s readmission into the regional organisation was launched by Saudi Arabia, just as Riyadh mended diplomatic ties with long-term regional foe Iran, in March this year.

Moreover, many Arab governments began to engage again with the Syrian regime following the devastating 6 February earthquake, which killed thousands in the country and in neighbouring Turkey.

Meanwhile, the UN's Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said that Damascus must invest in "political process", in order for conditions to improve in Syria following the country's readmission into the Arab League.

In an interview with the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Pedersen stressed that "a comprehensive view both on what it requires to change when it comes to Syria" is needed, as well as requirements from the international community.

There are approximately six million refugees worldwide, many of whom are concentrated in Turkey, as well as neighbouring Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

However, Syrian refugees in such countries often face racism, xenophobia and intense campaigns calling for their deportation – notably in Turkey and Lebanon, as well as being used as scapegoats for economic woes.

Elsewhere, Germany also hosts a sizeable number of those fleeing conflict and war in Syria.