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: 

I am a medical doctor. And I have a lot of friends and, I have a friend who never took part in any movement. He was always in his training and he was pursuing his medical career. And he decided to return to his home a few months ago. After his arrival 20 days after his arrival, he was detained without any justification without any reasons and he stayed for in jail for four months. I think he had to pay $6,000 And he stayed for four months. And he was exposed to psychological violence to physical violence. And whoever saw him later on found him abnormal, not back to normal. So those are people who know personally. 

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:

Now, let me just restate UNHCR’s position, on return, and on the asylum general. Now, I’ve seen a lot of papers which suggest that UNHCR is somehow pushing for return, or that we’re somehow engaging in activities inside Syria relating to early recovery and things like that, that would incentivize return. But so let me just answer that now. The main direction of UNHCR and the primary focus is on protecting the asylum space and protection space for refugees in neighboring countries, because, according to our formal legal documents, which advise asylum adjudication all over the world, the vast majority of Syrians need international protection and their right to seek asylum and to be given rights in those asylum countries should be respected. Full stop.

That’s, that’s, that’s the main driver. Now, in addition to the right to seek asylum, people have a parallel right to return back to their country at a time of their choosing. Now, they may even decide to go back when conditions are not safe. And we don’t we counsel them against this, we talk to them about the risks that they would face, we try and make sure that the decision is well informed.

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: 

When the Dayton agreement was signed, in November 1995, I lived in New Zealand, across the world from Bosnia. When it was signed in November, I was on my way back home in December. Why? Because there was an agreement that guaranteed my rights. It took me from that moment, another seven years to be able to return. Seven years from that moment when the political agreement was in place, basically, our version of your safe environment paper, but much less detailed. We didn’t have the expertise that you have, we didn’t have the experience that you have.

But it provided us with the platform to claim our rights back. So in March 1996, I was part of the first delegation from my town that went to negotiate with the authorities that had expelled us, killed us, interned us in concentration camps, same people. Out of four people that we negotiated with three will later convicted of war crimes, the chief of the police, the mayor and the head of the municipal government. But at that time, we had the agreement that guaranteed our rights. They would, after our meeting, go and bulldoze our cemeteries, to send us a message that we are not welcome. But we had the agreement, we had the platform to go back. And we were unstoppable. Because that platform gave us the right to constantly demand: either you fulfill the agreement or we continue to fight. You know there are consequences of not respecting an agreement. If there is no agreement—and like Alexander said, somebody has to guarantee the security. In Kosovo, it was NATO. NATO said, you can return because we are here, nobody who threatened you before is here anymore, we will protect you.

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: 

I think we are all on the same page. I mean, I know it’s not a popular view to say that that there should there doesn’t need to be a political agreement. It’s coming from the perspective of trying to respect people’s individual rights to return and not put a political condition on them and their choice. But I fully agree that it comes down to the guarantees and there needs to be something that creates that structure. And a political agreement is often the best way. But let me just explain the bit of background to this. Remember in 2018, President Putin announced that I think it was around a million people should go back by December 2018.

The UNHCR had issued the comprehensive protection solution strategy in February before that announcement. And within which there were thresholds which are based on international standards and on discussions with refugees on the conditions that would need to be in place. And that document is still the primary guide for us on the sort of conditions necessary, and it sets out the need for amnesties, need for guarantees, the need for some sort of mechanism to oversee them. So clearly from the Russian side, this was a politicization of refugee return, to see large numbers of people come back because of a political agenda, but then (I know I’m going to be very unpopular for saying this) the reaction we have from Western governments was the line, “no political agreement, no return.”

Which is not I’m not equating the two. But it’s also a politicized statement. It wasn’t coming from a perspective of…it was about not wanting to be caught into this political game with Russia and reconstruction and all these other things, which I’m not equating. And so this is where we stepped in and what we’ve been trying to do ever since is to say, it’s not about what the Russians or the West think it’s what do refugees think? What do the Syrians think? And this is where we started these intention surveys systematically, because what we were trying to do was taken away from a political discussion over deciding other people’s lives for them based on the political agenda into one which was driven by okay, this is this person’s right that they need to stay in asylum, or they’ve chosen to go back. But it’s this choice, which we’ve mentioned, which is absolutely critical, which we need to protect. But that’s why I come from this perspective of saying that it’s not a condition for put through a political agreement, because I don’t want to go back into that discussion on politicizing this. But of course, it is an effective way of redefining the relationship between the state and its citizens and providing the guarantees, of course, it would be preferable, but this is where we come from we because we try and focus on the individual and their choice. 

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: 

I think the tone of many of the questions come with a certain suspicion of UNHCR, or a sense, that the UNHCR is somehow acting in a manner which is not in refugees interests, or is somehow in cahoots or collusion with governments and things like that. Look, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to change your view. If you’ve got that view, I understand. I can just say, I’ve been working on this for 10 years, I wrote the CPSS, the comprehensive production solution strategy. I’ve been intimately involved in a lot of conversations with host governments. And at no stage over the last 10 years have I seen a situation where UNHCR has not been designing its response around the interests of refugees. Now, you may not believe that, but that’s my experience. Within that, do we make mistakes? Do we miscommunicate? Yes, probably.

And we need to be held to account and do a better job when we do. But there’s no sort of evil strategy behind our actions. To the contrary, we’re trying to navigate something which is very complex. Politically, we’re not a political organization. I think what we found that there’s the correct approach, the current moral approach, is to just focus in on what the refugees tell us they want to do, and to really to try and drill into that with international standards, but also recognize the challenges with those governments to try and find solutions, but in a manner, which is guided by those individual refugee voices.

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: 

In 2019 we were one of the very few local organizations involved in this protection threshold document and all of a sudden, a lot of this document changed, and we weren’t anymore invited to participate truly, in any further advancements. I always say I meet very good people from the UNHCR that makes me wonder why the organization is the way it is. Because genuinely, I know you guys have the best of intentions, but let’s not forget that UNHCR in Lebanon, and Syria, they are operating under the mercy of the government. And I know a few years ago, when UNHCR tried to even say that it’s not the time for return, all the working permits in Lebanon were halted. So we cannot say that the UNHCR is independent or is doing what the Syrians want, because we know it’s operating under the state’s mandates in all of these countries.