Russia and Syrian officials meet to plan 'refugee returns' in Damascus
Speaking on Thursday, Hussein Makhlouf, the head of the Syrian Ministerial Coordination Body said that the Syria-Russian joint body (to return refugees) has returned over two and a half million refugees to Syria since 2018.
Contrary to Syrian figures, the UN body for refugees (UNHCR) said that only about 315,000 Syrian refugees have returned since 2016. About half of Syria's population has been displaced due to the war in Syria, which erupted after the uprising in 2011.
The series of meetings came as a broader Russian and Syrian push to publicly call for Syrian refugees to return to the country.
Since 2018, the two countries have held an annual "International Conference on the Return of Syrian Refugees and Displaced." The conference has sought to solicit funding for Syria’s reconstruction and aid that would be routed through the Syrian regime, rather than the UN.
"This is something to show the INGOs and other countries that Russia can push guarantee for refugee return," Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher based in Turkey, told The New Arab.
"Other countries and international bodies didn't fully react to it, but I would guess some political parties in host countries will take it seriously and include it in their anti-refugee political agenda," al-Ghazi said.
Rights groups have lambasted the meetings as a sham, pointing to both the Syrian and Russian regimes' war crimes against its population as the biggest drivers of displacement in the country.
Around 350,000 people were killed in Syria's 11-year-long civil war, most of whom were killed by the regime.
"Russia [is] an aggressor in Syria and nothing close to a guarantor of any safe, voluntary and dignified return for Syrians," the Syrian Association for Citizens' Dignity (SACD) said in a statement on Thursday.
"There is no scenario in which displaced Syrians can be made to accept guarantees of the perpetrator who destroyed their homes and forcibly displaced them," SACD added.
Foreign governments, such as Denmark, have pointed to the lack of fighting in much of Syria as a sign that the country is safe to go back to.
A Danish far-right party famously put up billboards telling Syrian refugees to "go home to sunny Syria," as the government stripped a number of them of their residency permits.
Despite the reduction in fighting, human rights monitors have warned that Syria is still not safe, largely due to arbitrary abuse from the regime itself.
An October 2021 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found widespread instances of torture, detention, kidnappings and killings of returnees at the hands of security forces.
"The UN has recorded many cases of re-exit of Syrians from the country, [after they] went through interrogations from the Syrian mukhabarat [regime intelligence]," Anton Mardasov, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab.
Besides the issue of refugee returns, the series of bilateral meetings between Moscow and Damascus focused on the logistics of aid delivery.
"These meetings are attended by officials from various regions who bring anything to Syria: from children's toys to church utensils. In general, Moscow is involved in the process of providing assistance to the Syrians, but the scale of this assistance is quite local," Mardasov said.
Russian officials also met with their Syrian counterparts to discuss trade in various fields such as energy and water.