Although a safe and voluntary return of Syrians is generally agreed upon as a key component of a wider settlement of the conflict, SACD is the first organization to conduct a wide-ranging study into how Syrians themselves would define the concept of a ‘safe environment.’ The second panel session of the Geneva conference focused on the concrete steps that Syrians have, through the SACD’s report, identified as necessary for the existence of a ‘safe environment,’ and how such conditions can be realized. It also discussed the practical challenges faced by Syrians who have already had to return for different reasons, and the potential challenges that would face a premature return. It was also a rare opportunity for Syrians to engage in a public and transparent exchange with representatives of UNHCR.
From Geneva Conference:
Dr. Marwan Nazhan of SACD, Dr. Rouba Mheissen of Sawa for Relief and Development, Alexander Tyler of the office of the UN High Commission for Refugees and Mr. Refik Hodzic of the European Institute for Peace.
The panel was titled Safe and Dignified Return to Syria: Key to Lasting Peace and Stability in the Region, and was moderated by Paul Seils, Director of Peace Practice and Innovation at the European Institute for Peace. The panel agreed that refugees should never be forced or pressured to return. They were unified that conditions in Syria are currently not conducive to any large-scale return of Syrian refugees. Additionally, they agreed on the need to build greater trust between Syrian refugees and international organizations like the UNHCR. Finally, although there was some disagreement and debate about the need for a political solution as a prerequisite for any returns, all panelists agreed that refugees must feel safe from detention or political persecution if they are to return.
Dr. Marwan Nazhan of SACD opened by giving an overview of SACD’s Roadmap for a Safe Environment in Syria paper which is a central feature of the conference. The paper contains a definition of the various terms used throughout the paper, and an introduction explaining the current obstacles to a return for Syrians. It also describes the reforms that are necessary for a safe environment in Syria for the Syrian people to return: pre-return measures to give Syrians the confidence to return, measures needed to facilitate the return, and post-return measures. He also added that if Syrians are forced to return prematurely, it will be a destabilizing effect for the region in many different ways, as many young men will be unemployed and gravitate toward the drug trade, or potentially even terrorism. He also noted that returnees are at great personal risk, citing an example of a friend who attempted to return:
He ended by reiterating the importance of the political and humanitarian reforms discussed in the paper, before any return is possible.
Dr. Rouba Mheissen of Sawa for Development and Aid discussed what constitutes a voluntary return. She described that Syrian camps in Lebanon have no infrastructure and face constant physical and legal threats, along with a dire economy and a government which has been pressuring Syrians to return. Coupled with little or no information about the reality in their place of origin, a return under such circumstances cannot be considered informed or voluntary. Many of returnees who are for different reasons forced to return under these circumstances are then choosing to flee Syria once again.
She also questioned the Syrian regime’s desire or willingness to bring back refugees, arguing that the regime sees refugees as simply a political prop which can be used to gain legitimacy or extract concessions. Regarding funding and aid for those inside Syria, she concluded by stressing the need for balance: we must avoid allowing the regime to funnel aid and funding to its cronies, yet there are many Syrians still in regime-held areas, who live in dire conditions. “These are our brothers and sisters. And having stayed behind is not in itself a political stance, these are human beings as well, and we should be defending them.”
Alexander Tyler of the office of the UN High Commission for Refugees opened by discussing some historical precedents for refugee returns, especially Afghanistan post-2001. He noted that while “a political agreement is not essential for people to return, it is a mechanism through which that relationship can be rebuilt…giving people confidence to decide to return,” noting that people need guarantees in order to return. And he also described that UNHCR’s intentions survey, shows similar results to SACD’s own intentions survey: that while most Syrians want to return eventually, “we do not have a framework in place which will allow us to do monitoring in any substantial, systematic way.”
Mr. Tyler also clarified UNHCR’s position on return:
In closing, he acknowledged the pressures faced by refugees in Lebanon which were discussed by Dr. Mheissen, asserting that a major cause of such pressures is the drop in funding. He called on donor countries to renew their focus on Syrian refugees, noting that if refugees are pressured to return, it will likely result in greater instability and poverty in host countries, in addition to outward movements into Europe, without significant returns.
Lastly, Mr. Refik Hodzic of the European Institute for Peace asserted that, “political agreement is absolutely essential to return. Examples that were quoted either have this framework or have guarantees built in from a complete transformation in circumstances.” He added that in the past year, more people were displaced from Syria than returned to the country, showing that the country remained unsafe for return.
Mr. Hodzic also shared his experience with a political agreement in the aftermath of the Bosnia conflict:
Mr. Hodzic later noted that their agreement did not have social trust, and in fact a number of those who had committed atrocities were still in power; their agreement functioned precisely because they had international guarantees that did not depend on trust. He finished by saying that while protecting those seeking asylum is important, there is no alternative to a political agreement for the millions of Syrians in refugee camps.
Mr. Tyler then responded to the question of the necessity of a political agreement:
Mr. Tyler finished by saying that UNHCR has always prioritized understanding the views of Syrian refugees themselves, rather than international actors.
In response to Mr. Tyler, Dr. Mheissen asserted that trying to avoid politicizing the refugee question is fruitless: refugees have already been politicized by all actors: the Syrian regime, neighboring countries, Europe, and Russia. She also noted that while a political agreement is necessary, other actions can be taken while the political process is stagnant: building civil society actors, monitoring mechanisms, and pushing for a better environment to monitor returns.
The panel then opened for questions and comments. Questions were especially focused on Mr. Alexander Tyler of the UNHCR. A number of questioners objected to Mr. Alexander’s assertion that many refugees are afraid of returning for economic reasons. A number of others questioned whether any return can be truly voluntary given the current political conditions in Syria. Still others questioned whether UNHCR was listening to the voices of refugees.
Mr. Tyler addressed the questioners:
He agreed that refugees who wish to return should be informed about the situation in Syria, and the risks of return, but otherwise stated that they should have a free decision. He also noted that UNHCR has worked hard to listen to the voices of Syrian refugees and to tailor its focus around their interests.
In her closing statement, Dr. Mheissen gave some background into her organization’s suspicion of UNHCR: