This paper represents the perspectives and position of the undersigned civil society organizations and networks.
It was developed and produced after a series of consultations between Syrian Civil Society organizations, and also builds upon previous research and statements issued by these organizations.
The paper represents the signatories’ common stances on:
1) the nature of so-called “spontaneous” return to Syria;
2) the most important and essential conditions for safe, voluntary and dignified return;
and 3) The action required, from both the international community and host countries, in order to stop premature returns to Syria.
The real nature of so-called “spontaneous” returns to Syria:
Given current conditions in Syria and hosting states, we consider returns to Syria to be grounded in hopelessness and vulnerability, and thus they cannot be described as “voluntary”, “dignified”, or “safe”.
To date, UNHCR has recorded 12,676 “self-organized” returns to Syria in 2020. However, dire conditions inside Syria coupled with extreme “push factors” in host countries leads us to believe that the overwhelming majority of returnees to Syria thus far did not do so voluntarily, but rather they were forced to take the return decision based on their difficult circumstances.
Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries often experience legal, economic, and social marginalization, and at times active discrimination, in their places of residence. Return decisions that were taken to escape such conditions cannot be considered voluntary or dignified. Furthermore, the overall situation in Syria remains highly unconducive for the safe and dignified return of displaced Syrians.
While the dangers of active conflict are now confined to certain areas of the country, targeted forms of structural violence and the risk of persecution remain intact. The root causes of the conflict – an abusive state apparatus and the lack of basic rights – have not been resolved, creating a high risk for the recurrence of conflict throughout the country. Of particular concern to displaced Syrians is the existence of officials and party leaders who committed war crimes during the course of the conflict. Some of these leaders have made direct threats towards Syrians displaced abroad.
Displaced Syrians suffer from lack of credible information about the real situation in their places of origin. Internationally mandated organizations such as UNHCR are not meeting their responsibilities to provide such data, and instead, they are engaged in public campaigns that ignore the imminent risks facing displaced Syrians upon their return , choosing instead to focus on messages that serve to further expand their operations .
Moreover, civil society groups, have documented cases for prominent officials in important mandated agencies, stating that policy decisions and public advocacy about “Return to Syria” are now more than ever driven by the political pressure from Syrian-refugees’ hosting-countries and the Syrian state authorities.
The Brussels IV conference for Syria should therefore clearly reiterate that the protection and safety of displaced Syrians is paramount, and not secondary to other political agendas or interests. Furthermore, humanitarian and developmental aid agencies and their policies shall not ignore or undermine the grave physical, legal and material risks that face returnees to Syria.
A Syrian perspective for safe, voluntary and dignified returns to places of origin in Syria:
Syria has seen more than nine years of a bloody conflict that has generated the worst humanitarian and protection crisis since the World War II. In this context the basic needs and conditions for dignified, voluntary and safe repatriation to Syria must be met before actors begin promoting or facilitating these returns. Thresholds of necessary conditions have been laid out in the “Comprehensive Protection and Solutions Strategy for Refugee’s Return to Syria – CPSS”. However, these thresholds cannot be achieved without a political solution that addresses the root causes to the conflict.
A number of key changes should be made internally to begin progress towards an environment safe and conducive for return. Most importantly, all authorities inside Syria should provide indiscriminate access for Syrian citizens, residents and returnees alike, to the most essential services, justice, health, and education. Moreover, the Syrian civil society should have constitutionally and internationally guaranteed civic space to operate inside Syria.
A comprehensive political solution is necessary to tackle the enormous challenges that hinder the way towards a safe and conducive environment for repatriation to Syria. Practically, we ask the co-chairs of Brussels IV conference for Syria to support initiating a mechanism that includes the Syrian-displaced-led Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), along with UNHCR, to set a roadmap towards a conducive environment for return to places of origin inside Syria.
It is important to reiterate that Return is a solution to displacement, when it is only to the original places of residence inside Syria, be it neighborhoods, towns, villages, or cities, and this is to prevent any agenda intended to change the original demographics of Syria, which if happened would only leave the returnees displaced yet again.
Actions needed from the international community and host countries to prevent forced return to Syria:
The COVID19 crisis has significantly exacerbated the livelihood needs of Syrian refugees in the region. The crisis has served to compound “push factors” in hosting states, where worsening health and economic conditions resulting from the disease’s spread have provided new justifications for marginalizing Syrians and pressuring them to return prematurely to their country of origin.
To prevent the escalation of forced returns to Syria, host governments need more than ever to understand that positive engagement in the search for a political solution in Syria is the only ethical way to solve the Syrian refugee crisis in their countries. International community must share responsibility by ensuring that their humanitarian and development funding promotes the best interests of displaced Syrians. Syrians Refugee led CSOs should be provided the space to organize and represent Syrian refugee communities at local, national and international levels. We call on the Brussels IV conference co-chairs to emphasize the importance of inclusion of displaced communities in decision-making with host communities and international actors.
With regard to the monitoring of protection and safety conditions for returnees to Syria, we believe that the available evidence so far is enough for the international community to realize that violations and discrimination against returning refugees and IDPs are systematic. During the last two years, we have observed arbitrary detention, torture and killing of returnees by the Syrian state apparatus and other parties to the conflict, to the degree that for many the decision to return to their places of origin in Syria would be tantamount to “committing suicide”.
Compounding this evidence is a loss of communication and a general fear among returnees of contacting their friends and family outside the country, as well as a history of parties in Syria relying on siege tactics and the denial of life-saving humanitarian assistance. Taken together, we consider this to be sufficient evidence that the international community should focus on other more important priorities. We recommend the establishment of monitoring mechanisms to track and measure the physical, legal and material safety of Syrian refugees in the hosting countries. This is particularly necessary in the Lebanese and Jordanian contexts.
The senior presence and participation of Syrian-refugee led NGOs is missing in the regional refugee response coordination mechanisms. Both the 3RP steering committee and the Regional Durable Solutions Working Group lack entirely the presence of Syrian voices. The enhancement of these mechanisms to include Syrian-refugee-led NGOs is essential to prevent further forced return from the hosting countries.