Syria: Amnesty, HRW call on UN to halt return programmes as refugee chief visits Damascus
Four rights groups called on the UN to halt programmes that "could incentivise premature and unsafe returns" to Syria on Tuesday.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Refugee Protection Watch and the Syrian Association for Citizens' Dignity issued a joint statement during UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi's visit to the country.
It follows a tweet by the 'EU in Syria' account that Grandi met Dan Stoenescu, head of the EU delegation to Syria in Damascus. The UNHCR confirmed with The New Arab Grandi's visit to Damascus.
The rights groups said none of the UN refugee agency's 22 "protection thresholds" or criteria for evaluating return conditions for Syria have been realised "within any parts" of the country.
"Now is not the time to focus limited resources on a significant expansion of returns programming inside Syria," the rights groups said.
"Such an approach ignores the basic fact that conditions for safe return are not in place inside Syria, and presents great protection and human rights risks to hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians."
The organisations urged the UNHCR and other UN agencies to "halt the planned expansion of their return programming until safe, voluntary and dignified returns can be guaranteed".
"The fact that Syria is not safe for return has also been confirmed by the European Union and the UNHCR itself," they said.
During the previous three years, tiny numbers of refugees have gone back to Syria. Some of those have been disappeared and believed to have been killed by state security forces on their return.
The four rights groups said the figures represent under one percent of the Syrian refugees in neighbouring states.
They added that UN discussions on refugee return programming have "intensified" in recent months, pointing to the new strategic framework, which only the Syrian regime and UN signed after major donors expressed concerns.
According to the rights groups, a recent Area-Based Return Support Roadmap affords the regime a "central role to dictate how, where, and when UN return assistance should be implemented".
They said this is the "same government that is responsible for the displacement of millions of Syrians and serious human rights violations against returnees".
.@DanStoenescuEU met with UN High Commissioner for refugees @FilippoGrandi in Damascus. The EU supports the ongoing work & assessment of the @UNHCRinSYRIA, which has a clear mandate to protect refugees & promote durable solutions to their cause, including voluntary repatriation.— EU in Syria (@EUinSyria) September 13, 2022
The European Union's delegation to Syria said on Twitter that it believes the conditions for safe refugee returns to Syria have not yet been met.
"All Syrians have the right to return to their homes, but the conditions are not yet in place," the delegation tweeted.
"What is required first is to create conditions for safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees and the internally displaced, in accordance with international law and the principle of non-refoulement."
According to UN human rights agency OHCHR, non-refoulment "guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm".
The Syrian regime has detained tens of thousands of political prisoners since the start of the 2011 uprising, with many feared dead from torture, disease, or summary executions.
The EU's Syria delegation said the bloc "will support UN-facilitated returns in a timely manner, when and as soon as conditions become available".