Syrian refugees face grave violence and abuse upon return, HRW report reveals

Syrian refugees face grave violence and abuse upon return, HRW report reveals
A recent report by Human Rights Watch details how Syrian refugees who return to Syria face arrest, torture and disappearance at the hands of security services.
4 min read
20 October, 2021
Despite the facade of stability, Syrians in Syria still face regular violence from regime security forces, as well as armed militias in non-regime held areas [Getty]

Syrians who voluntarily returned to Syria from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses including torture and disappearance, a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals.

The HRW report, released on Tuesday, interviewed 65 Syrian refugees on their or their family members’ returns to Syria between 2017 and 2021.

It found that “returnees face many of the same violations that caused their flight from Syria.” Some of these violations included “arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, extra-judicial killings … at the hands of the Syrian security agencies and government-affiliated militias.”

Syria has witnessed no open, sustained conflict since the regime’s Idlib offensive ended in a ceasefire in early March 2020. Battle lines between the regime, opposition elements in the northwest and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have solidified over the last few years.

Despite the facade of stability, Syrians in Syria still face regular violence from regime security forces, as well as armed militias.

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About half of Syria’s population has been displaced due to Syria’s civil war, with 6.8 million Syrians living as refugees outside the country and the rest internally displaced.

Over the last year, the climate for Syrian refugees in some host countries has soured, with states like Denmark insisting that Syria is safe and pushing for refugee return.

Jordan and Lebanon, which host the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita in the world, have not been immune to these anti-refugee sentiments. Lebanon in particular has been hostile to refugees, employing punishing residency and employment restrictions.

These coercive measures are coupled with increasing economic pressure on Syrian refugee populations in both countries. In Jordan, just two percent of Syrian refugee households can meet their essential food needs.

Most Syrian refugees have refused to return to Syria despite these pressures, citing security and safety concerns back home. However, some have returned to Syria under extreme pressure, whether that be economic or political.

One interviewee in the HRW report, a 65-year old woman from Homs, said she had to return to Syria because she could not afford medical treatment in Lebanon.

Another interviewee, a 36-year old man from Daraa, said that he had to return to Syria after Jordan’s successive lockdowns, as he could no longer afford food for him and his family.

According to an ILO assessment, over 95 percent of Syrian refugee households in Jordan reported a loss in household income due to Covid-19 related lockdowns.

Those Syrians who have returned have faced mistreatment at the hands of security services, ranging from torture and murder to rough interrogation.

“Nearly everyone who returns will face some form of interrogation, Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syria researcher, told HRW.

One interviewee told HRW that despite obtaining a “reconciliation” card for his brother who recently returned from Jordan, his brother was arrested by security forces one month after his return. A security official informed the interviewee that his brother had died in detention, only after the interviewee gave him $8,000 for information on his whereabouts.

In Lebanon, the General Directorate of General Security issues “security clearances” for refugees who wish to return to Syria. These security clearances are supposed to be coordinated with Syria’s immigration office to ensure that the returnees is not wanted by Syrian security services.

In practice, Syrians have been arrested upon their return to Syria despite holding security clearances. A Syrian lawyer interviewed by HRW said that the Lebanese Directorate of General Security does this “on purpose.”

The HRW article corroborates a slew of earlier reports which describe Syria as unsafe. A September report by Amnesty International also documented instances of torture and sexual violence against refugees returning to Syria.

Still, neighbouring countries and Syria itself have been pushing for the return of Syrian refugees in recent years. In November 2020, Russia and Syria held a “refugee return conference” where they called for Syrian refugees to come back home.

A recent visit to Syria by UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi drew ire from Syrian activists for his suggestion that the international community work with the Assad regime to facilitate the return of refugees.

The UNHCR maintains that it is not safe for refugees to return to Syria and has asked that host countries maintain asylum for Syrian refugees.