Calls to Begin Returning Refugees to Syria Must Be Resisted

Refugees in Shebaa, Lebanon wait to be returned to Syria on 18 April. Photo: Getty Images.
Refugees in Shebaa, Lebanon wait to be returned to Syria on 18 April. Photo: Getty Images.

In the run-up to the recent Lebanese parliamentary elections, some prominent politicians highlighted refugee return as part of their electoral campaign platforms. This coincided with the orchestration of the forced return of 500 Syrian refugees on 18 April from Shebaa in southern Lebanon. Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil rejected the idea that returns must be linked with a political solution in Syria, and dismissed a statement from the UN and EU which warned that Syria is not safe for returning refugees.

At the same time, the EU is pushing forward a discussion for funding reconstruction works in Syria and promoting it as a solution for the refugee crisis in Europe. However, funding reconstruction doesn't mean that refugees will return; on the contrary, it might lead to more being displaced and heading for Europe. The EU should stop thinking of the refugee crisis as a short-term problem and devote more thinking to sustainable and long-term planning.

The West should understand that despite the interest of the regime in reconstruction for its own benefit, it is not interested in the return of refugees. The Syrian regime is using a number of different methods to permanently prevent people from returning to their homes. These include the arrest and torture of those who have returned as well as new policies and legislation to punish regime opponents and reward supporters, the latest being legislation about property rights.

In April, the regime issued a new decree known as Law No. 10 that will allow the government to confiscate the property of millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people, and support its plan for demographic change and social engineering. The law builds on previous decrees that the regime is using to benefit from the mass destruction in Syria, and to ensure that any future reconstruction will happen on its terms.

In 2012, Decree 66 permitted the redesign and redevelopment of informal housing in critical areas such as Basateen Arazi and Daraya. This legislation allowed the government to evict owners or residents without providing alternative housing for them. A subsequent law, Decree 19 of 2015, enabled administrative units (governorates and municipalities) to establish private sector holding companies to develop these areas.

In this way the regime guaranteed the transfer of ownership of this land to its own supporters and assured control over high-value land located close to city centres, thereby guaranteeing the exile of many Syrian refugees. Law No. 10 extends the reach of Decree 66 and allows the government to seize properties all over the country. Most likely it will be mainly used in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

The law gives a 30-day deadline to owners or their close relatives to provide to the government deeds that prove their ownership. As many people have lost their documents during the war and many left their properties with all their relatives, it would be impossible for many people to go back to Syria and claim their property. The regime also benefits from this law in vetting those who return, making sure that those who fled the country for political reasons will not be able to claim ownership knowing that they will be subjected to security checks upon their return.

Clearly, talking about the return of refugees in such a situation is untenable. Refugees cannot be left in the hands of a government that does not want them to return and is in many cases actively hostile towards them. In addition, given the nature of these laws passed by the regime, described as ‘punitive’ and a ‘cynical plan’ by a senior EU official, any future political settlement that includes refugee return must be approached warily, to ensure people are not delivered back into such disturbing conditions.

The future of millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians is now in the hands of the international community, which has a responsibility to try to put pressure on the Syrian regime to undo or redirect these laws to assure people’s rights to return to their homes.

Similarly, it is important for the West to not be manipulated into helping the regime with its plan to use reconstruction to slowly change the demographics of Syria in its favour. Any funds, no matter how small, channelled for reconstruction under the existing circumstances give the regime credibility and there is a danger it will be perceived as validating any law made under its rule.

For now, the EU and the US should stick to their plans of not funding any reconstruction work in Syria until a political settlement to the conflict is reached. Current international tenders meant for stabilization and improving the service infrastructure must be linked with eligibility clauses that would prevent funds from being channelled to regime-affiliated entities. The political settlement and by extension the reconstruction process, when they come, must incorporate a judicial review committee to ensure that all legislation passed since 2011 is compliant with international human rights standards.

Host countries may not like it, but they have an obligation to continue to shelter refugees from Syria, and discussion of return should be off the table until there is real movement on a political solution to the conflict. If the international community is to resolve the refugee crisis and start contributing to real reconstruction in Syria, action must be taken to stop the Syrian government’s punitive internal policies and legislation. This needs to happen before any deal with the regime is struck, so that a political settlement does not end up returning refugees to an even more vulnerable situation.

Allaa Barri, Research Development and Communications Manager, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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