As Assad’s Isolation Lifts, Syrian Refugees Fear Pressure to Return Home

On a recent morning, Lebanese soldiers swept through Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud neighborhood, vacating two buildings belonging to Syrian refugees living in it. They forced them into trucks and took them to the no man’s land between the Lebanese and Syrian borders.

After days of being trapped along the border, hundreds of refugees were brought by Syrian forces back to Syria. Among them is Rasha, a 34-year-old mother of three who fled the country in 2011. The family spent their first night in Syria sleeping on the streets of the capital, Damascus. The next day, he said, he paid a smuggler to help them cross back into Lebanon.

If the soldier returns, Rasha vows, he will die before being forced back into Syria again.

“Even if they shoot me, I will not come back,” he said after returning to his home in Beirut where his family, especially his 12-year-old son, live in fear that the soldiers will return. “My son kept waking up in the middle of the night screaming, ‘Mama, they’re coming,’” said Rasha, who asked to be identified by her first name for safety reasons only.

Across the Middle East, Syrian refugees like Rasha who fled millions during their country’s 12-year war have watched with nervousness as the Arab world reestablished diplomatic ties with their country’s authoritarian leader, President Bashar al-Assad, after more than a decade. isolation in the Middle East and beyond.

Last month, al-Assad attended the annual Arab League summit for the first time in 13 years, and many of the countries that welcomed him back have made the return of Syrian refugees a top priority.

“We are all interested that the Syrian refugees can return safely to their homes,” said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, at the end of a summit hosted by his country. “We will work with the government in Damascus to make this happen.”

Despite assurances of safe return to Syria by countries sheltering refugees, human rights groups say it is not safe for them to return and some of those who do face arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture and even extrajudicial execution.

More than six million Syrians fled during the conflict that began in 2011, most settling in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. For many, the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with the Syrian government presents the frightening prospect of losing their safe haven and being forced to leave the new life they have worked so hard to build.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been warning for years danger of returning Syrians, especially to areas under government control where those who have fled conscription or who speak out against the regime risk disappearing into the notorious prison system where torture and killings run rampant.

International law prohibits the return of persons to a place where they would be at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations.

Although Arab leaders talk of a safe and voluntary return, the discussion has created panic among some of the Syrian population, said Dareen Khalifa, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group.

“This clearly does not mean a voluntary and safe return,” said Ms. Khalifa. “It’s all code for sending people back at any cost or making it harder for them to stay.”

In Lebanon, where some 1.5 million Syrians are internally displaced, security forces have been carrying out deportation raids for months. They have sent more than 1,700 Syrian refugees back to a country still at war and with a repressive government largely in control, according to the United Nations.

Both Lebanon and Türkiye have deported Syrians before. But human rights groups say larger numbers are being deported from Lebanon now and in a more systematic way.

Lebanon—a country of just about four million people when the Syrian war began—immediately felt the pressure of an influx of Syrians. In Türkiye and Jordan, Syrian refugees initially received a warm welcome. But Lebanon has not set up formal refugee camps for them and enforces labor laws that limit the jobs Syrians can do.

In April, when Rasha and her neighbors were deported, they slept for five days in an empty hall that had been used for weddings before being taken to Syria. Dozens of men – some of them wanting to oppose the Assad government or for avoiding military service – were arrested, according to Rasha, who said she witnessed the arrests.

In a recent survey of Syrian refugees conducted by the UN refugee agency, only 1.1 percent of respondents said they planned to return to Syria next year. Only 56 percent said they hoped to return to Syria one day.

In Türkiye, where more than 3.3 million Syrian refugees alive, sending back Syrians became a prominent issue in the recent elections. In the days before the May 28 presidential election, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition challenging the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, put up billboards declaring “Syria is leaving!”

Even if Erdogan wins re-election, a strong performance by far-right nationalists in May’s presidential and parliamentary elections could push the Turkish government’s policies to a tougher line. In his acceptance speech, Erdoğan promised that his government would ensure the voluntary return of one million Syrians within a year.

Ahmad, a 26-year-old Syrian living in Istanbul, said Turkish authorities sent him back to Syria in January after he was held for five months in a camp for those about to be deported. Five days later, he said, he paid a smuggler to bring him back to Turkey.

When he first came to Turkey in 2021, he applied for a temporary ID card, which Turkey issues to refugees. But after going through the process, he was told that Türkiye was no longer issuing him.

“I was gripped by fear. If I work at a garage and it’s already night, then I will sleep at the workshop instead of taking the risk and walking home,” said Ahmad, who asked to be identified only by name for security reasons. “What if I get caught again and get jailed and deported?”

Jordan, which has more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, has been one of the main proponents pushing for plans to repatriate refugees there.

On May 1, Jordan hosted Arab foreign ministers from five countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to discuss what they would seek from Syria in return for normalizing relations with Assad. A declaration stemming from the meeting mentioned a pilot program to send back 1,000 Syrians – a way to test the waters for the return of even larger numbers.

The Lebanese army showed up in April at the home of another Syrian refugee, Najib, and deported him, his wife and two young children to Syria, according to his brother, Mohammed.

Najib, 31, had defected from the Syrian military in the early days of the conflict and was wanted by the government, according to his brother, who asked that the two be identified by their first names only for security reasons.

Najib was handed over to Syrian security forces and more than a month later, his family still doesn’t know where he is.

Mohammed, who works as a tailor in Beirut, said he was often too afraid to leave his home for fear of deportation. He now spends his time trying to track down any information about his brother.

A mediator had asked the family for $5,000 to help free his brother and be smuggled back to Lebanon, he said.

“I heard in the Arab League that there are plans to send us back to Syria,” he said. “But what’s the guarantee? My brother is still missing. How can I guarantee I won’t face my brother’s fate?

Vivian Nereim reporting contribution from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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