UNHCR’s Failure to Uphold its Responsibility to the Displaced Syrians

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the lead UN agency on refugee issues–of most concern for the displaced Syrians. As the responsible agency, UNCHR is mandated with managing the entire refugee return process. SACD has a number of urgent concerns about the refugee and IDP returns response and the role of UNHCR within it.

We have urgent concerns about the way UNHCR is approaching refugee and IDP returns and draw on SACD’s own research to highlight the risks. Failure to act to change the course of work and information around Syria’s vast displacement crisis now, will have a devastating impact on the region and may have deadly consequences for individuals.

The key areas in which the UNHCR is failing the displaced Syrians include:

  • Failure to engage with Syria’s displaced when setting returns strategy, thresholds, and programming.
  • Significant shift in protection thresholds and returns strategy without consultation, evidence base for doing so, or reasonable explanation of why degrading the thresholds benefits Syria’s displaced.
  • Failure to highlight the limitations and concerns around protection and gaps in access and operational space to political actors and states in order to inform returns discourse and policies.
  • Failure to communicate accurate and timely information to potential returnees about conditions, insecurity, and access limitations, leading to ill-informed returns decisions which therefore cannot be considered to be voluntary.
  • Ambiguous communications, facilitation of returns, and project proposals which encourage premature returns into an environment with no reasonable expectation of protection.

SACD’s own findings from research on the fate of returnees and people from the so-called “reconciliation agreement areas.” for which we interviewed some 280 returnees and people from “reconciliation areas” have documented a stark reality awaiting returnees, which UNHCR is completely failing to report on.

UNHCR’s strategy document for Syria – Comprehensive Protection and Solutions Strategy from February 2018 states that “present conditions in Syria are not conducive for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity. Significant risks remain for civilians across the country.” According to this document, UNHCR is neither promoting nor facilitating refugee returns at this stage and its planning for return in Syria is in Phase 1, which is defined as “the current phase, where the necessary conditions are not in place for safe and dignified return, but there are some self-organized returns occurring. During this phase, return should not be encouraged.” Despite this, their 2019 Operational Framework removes this language and adds significant circumstance sin which facilitation of returns can occur during phase 1.

Alongside this, UNHCR is working with donors and other aid actors in an attempt to implement cash programming for returnees, which is likely to encourage and incentivize returns at a time when protection thresholds have not been met. The plan to offer the returnees a cash incentive could prove to be a tipping point for many displaced Syrians in difficult living conditions in displacement, who could see it is an incentive to return despite the absence of basic conditions for a safe and dignified return. Such plan is being considered despite clear evidence that it is not safe for a vast majority of the displaced to return without a robust international monitoring mechanism to ensure minimum conditions of safety and dignity; despite UNHCR’s own admission that it has no access to a vast majority or returnees to monitor their condition once they return; and in direct contravention of its own strategy documents. There are real fears from Syrians, as well as in donor and humanitarian circles that cash payments could coerce people back prematurely into an unsafe situation.

Read the full 14-page briefing paper and the accompanying Annex breaking down the failure to uphold protection thresholds here: