On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the UNHCR are holding the first Global Refugees Forum. As a civil society organization that represents the views of displaced Syrians, SACD is disappointed not to receive an invitation to this event in order to represent the displaced people of Syria. SACD calls for refugees and IDPs to be an integral part of all discussions about their future.
We are a civil-rights grassroot popular movement established by citizens from different regions of Syria. It works to promote, protect and secure the rights of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)through advocacy, mobilization of necessary support, and influencing key policy and decision-makers. As the vocie of the displaced Syrians, we adress the delegates of the Global Refugee Forum with the following messages and recommendations:
Key Messages for the Global Refugee Forum
SACD calls on host countries and donors to continue and increase support for refugees in host countries to ensure hosting and protection continues for as long as needed. This includes creating conditions for adequate access to employment and education to the refugee population and adequate support to host communities to alleviate any resulting inequalities.
SACD calls for long-term solutions and increased resettlement for refugees who cannot go home.
Any political solution to end the conflict, and to achieve a lasting and stable peace in Syria and the region, must include mechanisms to protect the rights of displaced Syrians. The voices of displaced Syrians should be included in constitution drafting and all work-streams within the UN-led Geneva process.
The international community (including European states, neighbouring countries, and humanitarian agencies) must increase and adapt their efforts to protect Syria’s displaced from refoulement or increased pressure to return until the conditions for their voluntary, safe and dignified return are guaranteed.
The international community must address the crisis caused by the Syrian regime’s refusal to allow UNHCR unfettered access to monitor the return conditions. A strong international mechanism should also be considered to ensure and monitor conditions of return inside Syria that protect the rights of displaced persons and refugees — including those who had to return to areas under regime control before the conditions of safe, voluntary and dignified return were in place and a secure environment is achieved — and prioritizes protection concerns.
The resolving of the issue of detainees and forcibly disappeared people must be adopted as a pre-condition for the creation of minimum conditions for a safe, voluntary and dignified return. This includes unrestricted and immediate access to all detainees by international agencies lead by the ICRC, handing over of the bodies of those who died under torture in detention to their relatives, and the abolishment of sentences and criminal charges, as well as full rehabilitation for all those arrested for opposing the regime.
Given the high reported levels of arrest, detention, harassment, discrimination, conscription and violations of housing, land and property rights, the international community must halt discussion of return or preparation for return until an effective monitoring mechanism is in place. It must also provide reassurance that facilitated or supported return will not take place until the conditions for voluntary, safe, and dignified return have been met and independently verified via the international mechanism.
Timely and granular information about the security conditions and conditions for return in each of Syria’s towns and cities must be urgently made available to Syria’s displaced. Until this information is available, no returns can be considered safe or voluntary.
SACD agrees that burden-sharing is essential in the Syrian context and all actors must support host countries and refugees alike with resettlement options, funding, and political action to resolve the crisis and create the conditions that would support safe, dignified, and voluntary return.
Our research shows that providing services inside Syria isn’t the appropriate response to the concerns of Syria refugees, but these should be offered in neighbouring countries and areas of displacement as conditions for a safe, dignified and voluntary return simply do not exist (www.syacd.org).
Protection is a major concerns for displaced Syrians and SACD has a number of concerns about the refugee and IDP returns response and the role of UNHCR within it.
First and foremost, SACD maintains that displacement in Syria is a political issue. Over half of the pre-war population are displaced and some of the most pernicious reasons for displacement and barriers to return involve political and structural changes within Syria that only a successful peace process, political agreement and transition can deliver. Simply treating refugee return as a humanitarian issue to be managed by UNCHR is a recipe for disaster.
The SACD maintains that UNHCR’s failing in its responsibility to displaced Syrians. 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.
Key concerns about UNHCR’s returns work
- 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.
- Inability and failure to access and monitor protection concerns, conditions, and thresholds in potential areas of return, or to access and monitor returnees.
- 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.
We have detailed the argumentation for our concerns in a briefing paper and accompanying analysis of degradation of UNHCR’s protection thresholds for displaced Syrians (https://syacd.org/reports/unhcrs-failure-to-uphold-its-responsibility-to-the-displaced-syrians/) which includes the following recommendations:
SACD calls on key states participating in the political process to act to ensure that IDP and refugee return is addressed as part of any peace process of political agreement; including the need to address political and structural barriers to return at the political level.
As major donors of UNHCR and the UN response in Syria, we call on donor states to hold UNHCR to account for humanitarian-level aspects of the refugee and IDP returns response.
SACD calls for the immediate reinstatement of the February 2018 thresholds, clarity around the drafting of thresholds, and significant and meaningful consultation with displaced Syrians in any future changes to the thresholds through a transparent process.
UNHCR must be clear about the limits of their access and monitoring capabilities and highlight the gaps in knowledge and risks inherent in this lack of access and monitoring. UNHCR must call for access and make it a pre-condition of any future returns discussion or work. UNHCR must only use contextually relevant information to monitor conditions and should monitor implementation of legislation and announcements in addition to the announcements themselves. UNHCR must work with organizations like SACD to produce and distribute research and monitoring information about security concerns and conditions until such time as they are able to do so themselves.
Timely and granular information on the protection thresholds, conditions in areas of return, and the experience of returning refugees and IDPs must be made available to CSOs and refugees through publicly-facing platforms that they can access in their own time when considering returns decisions. Until such time as this can be provided returns cannot be considered to be informed or voluntary.
Immediately revert to the 2018 language under Phase 1 of the strategy, highlighting that returns should not be encouraged and that facilitation should not occur until the conditions exist under which safe, dignified and voluntary returns can take place and cease programming that could encourage or facilitate premature and unsafe returns.
UNHCR must recognize the impact its social media have on the decision-making by the displaced Syrians and curate the conditions in Assad-held areas accurately and responsibly. It must account for misleading narrative curated through its social media which omits any information on security threats facing returnees in Assad-held areas and complete omission to report through its social media on the suffering of more than 400 000 Syrians displaced from Idlib since the start of the assault by Russian and regime forces in February.
Key recommendations on Syria for the Global Refugee Forum
- All returns should be safe, dignified, and voluntary and any political agreement has to include refugee and IDP voices and be based on the right of refugees to the judge of their own interests. The voluntary repatriation should respect the fact that refugees are ‘purposive actors’, and gives the scope for independent, rational decision-making about their future and for their new opportunities, values and vision fostered during exile.
- UNHCR have so far not been able to achieve an acceptable minimum of unfettered access to assess the conditions of Syrian refugees return. The international community should push towards have an unvarnished and objective assessment from UNHCR about its possible role to probe these actual conditions and to provide a rational risks analysis for those circumstances for assessing any possible returns, this urging of UNCHR will be as a challenge to evaluate its possible capabilities in this issue. However, of the international community, especially EU and European countries dissatisfied with UNHCR information, they should consider alternative effective means for assessing conditions on theground. Eventually, addressing this gap is an essential first step in any conversation on refugee and IDP return and should form a pre-condition to any work on returns.
- The majority of returns decisions are being made due to ‘push’ rather than ‘pull’ factors. Maintaining and increasing support for IDPs and refugees, and renewing efforts to identify and support durable solutions for them in areas of displacement, is essential to ensure that premature returns due to ‘push’ factors are halted.
- Any upcoming political agreement must entail radical changes to the regime’s security and judicial structure. Genuine mechanisms must be established to ensure transitional justice to address returnees’ grievances, under which refugees and IDPs returning to regime-held areas should be granted the right to appeal to the judiciary to report abuses before or after their experience of return.
- Refugees and IDPs who voluntarily return prematurely and find that it is not safe or dignified should not be discriminated against during secondary displacement on return to neighbouring countries or are as in Syria outside government control now or in the future.
- The international community, especially the EU, should increase economic assistance and preferential partnership agreements with host countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to alleviate the burdens caused by their massive population growth, which has cast a shadow over infrastructure and employment. Social cohesion should be addressed within this programming and support.
- Greater attention and support should be given to the issue of family unity, which is a key driver of premature return and a frequently identified failure of the returns experience. The indicators underpinning the UNHCR’s Protection Thresholds regarding family unity and refugee return should be revisited in consultation with refugees and IDPs to ensure that their work better matches the concerns of returning refugees and IDPs.
- Any funding for the reconstruction process must be conditional on the return of refugees and IDPs to their homes and the property they left. This process has to be monitored and sponsored by the UN to ensure that the regime will respond to the demands, and not impose the facts on the ground policy through demographic and housing changes the regime has brought about during the last eight years.
Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity embodies the diversity of the citizens of Syria, regardless of their social, religious or gender background. The Association is fighting to ensure the right of a voluntary, safe and dignified return of all Syrian refugees and IDPs. We are against forced or premature return of refugees and IDPs. The Association believes that a popular movement for a dignified return, based on the recognition of the rights of refugees and IDPs as Syrian citizens, is central to any future solution in Syria.