Syrian Voices for the Displaced
 
The Prospect of Returns: Now is NOT the time

THE PROSPECT OF RETURNS: NOW IS NOT THE TIME

This brief paper represents the position of the signatories on the prospect of displaced Syrians’ return to their places of origin. Signatory organizations are all Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) that were established by displaced Syrians themselves or those working very closely with them. These organizations have activities in Syria, its neighboring countries or another refugee hosting country. These organizations provide services that include but are not limited to lifesaving humanitarian assistance, development and peacebuilding support, legal and human rights assistance, policy and research, capacity building and advocacy.

Syrian Context: forced displacement and return

By the end of 2018, more than 11.8 million Syrians were forcibly displaced by the ongoing violence: about half of the Syrian population immediately preceding the conflict in 2011. This includes 5.68 million Syrian refugees officially registered by United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), most of whom reside in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In the second half of 2018, there was a significant decline in hostilities in many parts of Syria, resulting in a reduction of new displacement of about 3 million in 2016 to 1.63 million in 2018. On the other hand, UNHCR has reported an increase in the number of refugees returning home over the last three years and announced an anticipation of further refugee returns this year. Some governments and international actors are even calling for the organized repatriation of Syrian refugees. Yet in 2018, the number of Syrians who were newly displaced was higher than the number of those who had returned to their place of origin – 1.47 million and 1.63 million respectively.

We believe that the conditions for voluntary return in safety and in dignity are not currently in place and call on the international community to reject plans to facilitate returns and step up their efforts in ensuring international protection for Syrians wherever they live.

Syria is not safe for refugees to return

Overall, the situation in Syria is still highly unconducive for the safe and dignified return of displaced Syrians. While the dangers of active conflict have been isolated to specific areas, targeted forms of structural violence and the risk of persecution remain. 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 recurrence of conflict. While the total number of people arbitrary detained and forcibly disappeared is impossible to accurately assess, it is estimated that at least 95,000 people have been forcibly disappeared between March 2011 and July 2018. State practices of torture and mass deaths in detention are well documented and ongoing.

Moreover, the issue of conscription presents another major safety concern for Syrians. Syrian men between the ages of 18 and 42 who have evaded conscription face detention. Those who are granted amnesty are still required to serve in the army. It is well documented that the Syrian Armed Forces has violated international humanitarian law throughout the conflict, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Syrians drafted into the army are compelled under penalty of law to follow all military orders. This means that men returning to Syria may be forced to participate in extrajudicial killings, torture and forced displacement of civilians. As a result, women are more likely to return than men, with women and children returning first in a split-return format, to settle property and civil documentation claims, and to assess conditions and available services in the intended area of return.

Further physical and legal protection concerns continue, including limited freedom of movement and the dangers posed by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and land mines. Housing, land and property protection concerns also present major barriers to return, with reports of looting, unlawful expropriation of property, demolitions in formerly opposition-held areas, and occupation of property by new families. Displaced Syrians’ vulnerability is gendered. A Syrian woman’s legal status in the civil registration system is derived from her relationship to her father or husband. Women are much less likely than men to possess legal documentations like marriage certificates, other civil society documentations and property documents, for example 1/50 women possess a passport compared to 1/5 men. This creates legal challenges for the many women whose male guardians have been killed or forcibly disappeared.  In light of this dynamic, it is vital to incorporate a gender lens into any discussion of post-return protection challenges

.The real reasons why displaced Syrian return: push factors and lack of rights

The living conditions of displaced Syrians have been made extremely challenging thereby encouraging Syrians to go back to their place of origin prematurely. Returns induced by coercive push factors are neither voluntary nor dignified. The following factors are the main causes for premature returns; leaving them unaddressed amounts to refoulement (“forced return”):

Push Factors on Syrians living in Europe and the United States:

  • Restrictive family reunification laws and policies in European host countries driving refugees towards returning or undertaking dangerous journeys to unite with their loved ones.
  • Rise in xenophobic sentiments in Europe are increasingly making Syrian refugees feel unwelcome and have pushed some to return to Syria.

Push factors from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan:

  • Lack of legal status: As many as 73% of refugees in Lebanon aged 15 and older lacked legal residency in 2018, and more than 20% of Syrian refugees in Jordan still lack valid registration with the authorities. The repercussions are risk of statelessness for newborns, highly limited mobility, severe access restrictions to work, education, housing etc.
  • Lack of economic opportunity: Syrians face difficulties accessing employment due to restrictive labor policies, resulting in high levels of unemployment:  57% of Syrians in Jordan are unemployed, 33% in Lebanon, 21% in Turkey. Even though female-headed households constitute 19 percent of all refugee households in Lebanon, the percentage of employed females, estimated at 7.6 percent. 
  • Barriers to education: 90,000 out-of-school refugee children in Jordan, 290,000 in Lebanon and 338,000 in Turkey or 43% of Syrian refugee children do not attend formal education. 
  • High cost of basic living conditions: For most refugees healthcare is unaffordable and rent is costly. Nearly 80% of Syrian refugees outside of camps in Jordan are living below the poverty line, with this figure at more than 71% in Lebanon, and 64% in Turkey. These conditions have led to the accumulation of enormous debts among the majority of refugees.

Push Factors on internally displaced Syrians

  • Housing, Land and Property protection and Law no. 10, the Absentee Property Law and other similar legal instruments (decrees 63 and 66). 41% of IDPs in a 2017 survey reported that “the need to repossess assets and properties at place of origin” was the main reason for their intention to return.
  • Extremely poor economic conditions and lack of system-wide local integration policies pushing them to return to their place of origin or attempt to leave Syria.

All of these push factors are exacerbated by donor fatigue. Humanitarian appeals for the Syria crisis remain significantly underfunded threatening to exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation. As of 5 November 2018, the 2018 Syria regional refugee and resilience plan (3RP, covering Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey), which required USD 5.61 billion was only 46.3% funded (USD 2.59 billion). The 2018 Syria Humanitarian Response plan, which covers the situation inside Syria and required USD 3.36 billion, was only 56.3% funded (USD 1.89 billion).

 

Interpreting the numbers: increased IDP returns do not indicate safe conditions.

While there has been an increase in the documentation of IDP returns, these return movements do not indicate safe conditions. First of all, it is important to note that IDP returns are not tracked in a consistent and reliable manner due to severe access constraints throughout Syria. IDP returns are also not new in the Syrian context: throughout the war, Syrians have consistently left their areas of origin during violent escalations and subsequently return. For example, in 2015, a year which saw major hostilities, an estimated one million people from major cities in Idlib governorate left their homes and returned after the violence reduced.

Moreover, it is essential to distinguish between documented returns of IDPs and refugees in this context. IDPs tend to return back to their places of origin more than refugees, even if they lack guarantees of safety and the information needed to make a well-informed, voluntary decision. This is mainly because since 2015 international borders have significantly tightened, accordingly Syrians fleeing their homes settled inside the country in places that are not significantly safer than the place from which they came. Therefore one’s decision to return home should not be an indicator of significant improvement to the safety and security of their home or the environment in Syria. Instead it indicates that internally displaced persons in Syria are suffering high levels of risk.

We believe the reported increase in IDP returns has perpetuated a false narrative that Syria is safe for returns and consequently, negatively affecting the safety and living conditions of Syrian people wherever they may reside.

Recommendations:

To all international actors; governments, agencies and organizations:

  • A commitment to achieving sustainable peace in Syria through credible political negotiations. Syria will only be safe for return once an inclusive governance system is in place, respect for human rights is guaranteed by functioning civil institutions and the enormous injustice legacy of the conflict is effectively reconciled. As long as the root causes of the conflict are not addressed, it is impossible to achieve sustainable peace and reconciliation;
  • A moratorium on any form of forced, organized or assisted return of Syrian refugees to Syria. This includes deportations and return under the auspices of military actors, and also the provision of any type of assistance in the form of transportation, financial support or aid that is premised on the return of refugees to Syria;
  • A pledge to achieve a commitment with the international humanitarian law and international human rights law from all conflict parties inside Syria. This includes, the cessation of unlawful killings, arbitrary detention, and forced conscription; the guarantee of the right to return, and housing, land and property rights of displaced persons; as well as the access required to monitor these commitments. 
  • A commitment to guaranteeing international protection for Syrian refugees until a sustainable solution to the conflict in Syria has     been achieved. A partial or temporary reduction in violence is insufficient to guarantee the safety of Syrian returnees. Voluntary repatriation can only be planned once Syria has adopted a system in which the human rights of every citizen are fully protected;
  • Increased global responsibility sharing to continue supporting Syrian refugees. The protection and support to Syrian refugees is the responsibility of the international community as a whole. Syria’s neighbors are currently hosting unprecedented numbers of refugees and they need more support to continue hosting Syrians. This should include the provision of humanitarian and development aid, but also an expansion of resettlement programs.
  • A commitment to achieve a constitutionally guaranteed free space for Syrian Civil Society which assures their ability to monitor, document and confront violations if took place against returning Syrians and also be able to freely deliver humanitarian aid whenever necessary.

Signatories:

Syrian Networks League (SNL);

Syrian General Union for charity and relief organizations, 33 CSOs.

Syrian NGO Alliance, 20 CSOs.

Minber Suriye, 41 CSOs.

Union of Syrian Civil Society Organizations, 48 CSOs.

WATAN network.

Ilaf Union.

 

Other local and diaspora CSO networks:

Shaml Syrian CSOs coalition, 7 CSOs.

Syrian Women Network, 17 CSOs.

American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS), 10 CSOs.

Arab NGO Network for Development.

Individual Civil Society Organizations:

Citizenship league

Syrian Center for Policy Research

Basmeh & Zeitooneh**

Women Now for Development**

Syria Relief and Development

Sawa for development and aid

FREE-Syria Foundation

Baytna Syria

Syrian center for media and freedom of expression

Syrians for Truth and Justice

Syrian American Council

International humanitarian relief

Bonyan Organization

Ghiras Al Nahda*

Children of One World*

Hand In Hand for Aid and Development* 

Binaa for Development*

MASRRAT Establishment For Human Care and Development*

Physician Across Continents - Turkey (PAC-Turkey)*

Syrian American Medical Society – SAMS*

Syrian Expatriate Medical Association – SEMA*

Social Development International – SDI*

Syria Relief-SR*

Violet Organization for Relief and Development*

UOSSM*

Ihsan for Relief and Development – IRD*

Takaful Al Sham Charity Organization*

Shafak*

SKT Organization*

Rahma Relief Foundation*

Orange Organization*

Al Sham Humanitarian Foundation – AHF*

WOMEN SUPPORT ASSOCIATION

Freie Deutsch-Syriche Geselschaft e.V.

Syrian Center for Statistics ad Research e.V.

UOSSM Germany e.V.

Barada Syrienhilfe e.V.

Olivetas e.V.

DOZ e.V.

Freunde des syrischen Volkes e.V.

Human Help Community gUG (HHC)

Independent Doctors Association - IDA

Syriche Gemeinde in Schleswig-Holstein e.V.

Salam Kultur und Sportklub e.V.

Alkawakibi für Demokrati und Menschenrechte Multi Aid Programs - MAPs

Salsabil Charity Organization

General Commission for Follow-up on the Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Access Center for Human Rights

Alghad Charity Organiation

Hayat Organization

Refugees = Partners

Project Alibda

Foundion For Development -MBL

Jana Watan organization

Humanitarian Restoration Hope

Syrian Bright Future

Youth Tomorrow Charity Association

Ehsas Relif Agancy

Space of Hope**

Kesh Malek**

Emissa**

Local Development and Small Projects Support office (LDSPS)**

Olive Branch**