As the issue of return of the displaced Syrians has recently been at the forefront of many debates about Syria, it is critical to clarify key points related to this broad concept, how important it is, and where it fits into the map of the solution of Syrian crisis.
First of all, the safe, voluntary and dignified return is merely the right for the displaced Syrians who are forced to flee their own country seeking for a safe place to live, and the issue of their return is highly connected to the real causes of their displacement and to the reality in the areas where their original home is and how safe it is right now for them to return.
There is one thing about which there cannot be any debate: We, the displaced, have the right to return to our previous residences in Syria without fear of persecution, harassment, discrimination, intimidation, or denigration based on race, religious affiliation, political leaning, or any other reason.
A safe environment means the safety of any returnees. It is is the minimum and a fundamental part in any talk about the safe, voluntary and dignified return. It is the pre-condition for any possible and sustainable return in the future.
The safe environment: Why it is so important ?
- We can easily see that creating such an environment is the only way to get Syrians back to their country and protect their lives, their rights and dignity, which means reducing or even stopping the waves of displacement that are still going on and restoring the social peace in Syria. Creating a safe environment in Syria is also a way towards reducing the tension and internal discord in the host societies resulting from the negative approach to the issue of refugees who often find themselves as a card played in the internal country politics. The only way to reestablish stability in Syria, regional countries, and beyond is to follow a road map to create a safe environment.
- If we understand that well, it will be clear that the SE is the fundamental part of any real and sustainable upcoming Political solution.
- Making the establishment of a safe environment in Syria a priority for key actors will reshape the political process, which is all but dead right now as we all know; it will revive it and create a path towards a solution of Syrian crisis, a matter that is in line with the interests of majority stakeholders including the regional countries; it will ensure the rights of the people and save the rest of Syria.
The position of displaced Syrians about their rights and the importance of Safe Environment for return:
We have to remember that, when we talk about the rights of the displaced, we are talking about the rights of more than half of the population of Syria to return to their homes, more than 13 millions of people inside and outside Syria and all over the world who were forced to flee their country in horrible circumstances, which continue to exist, as most international reports, including ours, have stated. Turkey, as you are all aware, received the largest number of displaced Syrians.
To that end, The Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity (SACD) which is a civil-rights grass-root popular movement established three years ago by a diverse group of citizens from different regions of Syria, works to promote, protect and secure the rights of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) wherever they are, and to raise the voice of displaced Syrians in any of the key decision-making forums.
The Association strives to present the vision, concerns and demands of the refugees and IDPs, and make sure that their voices are heard through advocacy, mobilization of necessary support, and influencing key policy and decision-makers.
Our main objective is to ensure the right of a voluntary, safe and dignified return of all Syrian refugees and IDPs and stop any kind of forced or premature return of refugees and IDPs.
One of the key areas of focus of SACD will be change of policy affecting displaced Syrians and ensuring that their conditions for return to be in place in any political solution.
After working for more than three years in many countries and inside Syria, revealing the realities and summing the voices and ideas of Syrians through hundreds of activities and discussions, as well as many concise and thematic reports, we can say that about 73 percent of the displaced want to return in case the conditions of safe environment are met. This means at least nine million displaced Syrians want to return home, but need to see significant changes in the conditions on the ground before that happens.
These conditions are deeply discussed and interpreted in WE ARE Syria report as well as in other reports published before which provided unprecedented insight into the conditions facing returnees and addressed some of the key issues like the minimum thresholds for legitimacy of elections as you can see in the report shared with you ( Safe environment before every thing else )
What changes do the displaced want to see in order to return?
If we go into more details about what the changes which are clear in the mind of the displaced and they want to see in place in order to feel ready to return, we can categorize them as follows:
- Security Issues : including security apparatus reform and unconditional release of the detainees.
- Political and Constitutional Reform.
- Social conditions : Social connections was an important condition for return.
- Economic conditions.
The essential conditions for return for the vast majority of displaced Syrians are related to security conditions. Displaced people do not trust security guarantees by the regime or its allies and they are unwilling to risk returning to their homes with the regime still entrenched and normalized, given that its security services permeate all aspects of life in areas under its control. Furthermore, the continued detention of their relatives and neighbors, arrested for their political opinions or suspicions of belonging to the opposition, serve as a strong reminder for many of the displaced that the regime cannot be trusted on security-related issues. This is elaborated as issues around:
Security sector reform: The number one priority for the large majority of study participants (73 %) relates to the need to reform the security sector and curb its powers over civilian life. An even larger segment (82%) called for the complete dismantling of the current security services and reforming them in ways that would “guarantee that their performance would be focused on an internal security function ensuring the security of citizens and protecting the people in accordance with the laws”.
Detainees: The fate of detainees is a priority for the displaced (64%). Most of them (82%) demanded “the full and unconditional release of all detainees who were detained for dissent or being accused of anti-regime activities or sentiment, revealing the fate of the forcibly disappeared persons, releasing them or handing over the bodies of the those who died in prison to their families”.
Compulsory military conscription: Most of the displaced according to the study who wish to return want to see compulsory military recruitment either cancelled or suspended for at least 5 years (84%).
Departure of the Syrian regime: A similarly large number of the displaced according to the study (81%) who wish to return identified the “departure of the regime with all its key figures” as an essential condition for return whereas a small number (12%) are satisfied with the “departure of the head of the Syrian regime”.
General security: The majority of them (74%) referred to the general sense of societal security as a main precondition for return. Most interviewees understood this to include restoring trust within communities and between family members after the long conflict.
Beyond factors related to security, three more important areas should be mentioned:
Public services covering a broad range of issues: For over half of the respondents (55%) a priority is radically changing the local administration system, allowing more decentralization of powers and upgrading services. While these opinions are based on dissatisfaction with the capacities of the local administration, they are also developing because a large portion of the displaced now find themselves in countries where the local administrations are more organized and effective than in Syria.
Education is a key concern of both refugees and IDPs for their children’s future: It indicates the continued emphasis and hope that displaced Syrians place on the young, well-educated generation as the key to the country’s recovery. After the onset of conflict, schools were regularly targeted and destroyed, teaching staff were imprisoned or displaced, and the curriculum became even more politicized to cement the regime’s ideological tenants. A majority of respondents (75 %) named the removal of such content and improvement of the quality of education to a condition for return.
Social and family connections was an important condition for return.
It is obvious that the displaced are fully aware of the main pillars of the safe environment for return and the importance of the comprehensive political solution that guarantees that safe and neutral environment.
And after holding long and detailed discussions with Syrian and international experts, collecting data, integrating the ideas of Syrians, providing statistics and facts about the of the reality in Syria and studying the examples from other countries which have experienced massive displacement and destructive wars similar to what is happening in Syria, SACD are about to publish a position paper that will translate all the efforts listed above into a legal, detailed position that will aid in defining the safe environment as a reality in Syria and providing all key actors with a roadmap on how to do it step by step.
So : How to achieve the Safe Environment?
First of all, the Influential countries, international and regional actors should agree that it is the cornerstone of the political solution. Creating the safe environment in very detailed and fine steps will serve as the foundation for any other component of the political discourse such as elections, constitution & reconstruction. They have to know that any other component will not be effective and even credible without the environment that protects rights of half of the population of Syria.
As a consequence, all stakeholders should be involved in a clear process with concrete responsibilities to achieve it.
These process should be in Steps, as the required measures and changes will be implemented before, during, and after the return. ( including detailed legal organized points related to the rights of freedom - armed forces in Syria - security services - property rights - the judiciary - the legal system - international monitoring and supervision- the Accountability- the plan of return itself ……etc.)
When described in the political solution, the safe environment will undoubtedly include many details such as the following:
- Withdrawal of all foreign forces present on Syrian soil.
- Syrian Army that is neutral, non-sectarian, national army whose mission is the defence of the country against external enemies and not repression of its own people
- Exemption from military conscription for returnees (making military service optional) for a minimum period of five years
- Security services integrated into a single, non-sectarian service that is neutral towards all
- Single, unified judicial system exercising its functions over all Syrian territory in a neutral, independent, and transparent manner
- Abolishment of any laws that undermine the human rights and public freedoms provided for under the Syrian constitution
- Repeal of any laws that hinder the return of refugees and IDPs to Syria
- Restitution of properties lost or seized since 2011, as well as any property seized prior to that date for direct or indirect political reasons
- Abolishment of any obligations or undertakings related to properties of displaced Syrians made under duress of any kind
- Right to return to pre-displacement homes free of the risk of harassment, intimidation, persecution, discrimination, or detention because of political views, or their origin, race, or religious beliefs
- Refugees who voluntarily return to their home country shall not be penalised under any circumstances for leaving it due to the causes that drove them to flee
- Abolishment of all exceptional courts (including Counter-Terrorism Court, Field Martial Court) and amnesty for those convicted by these courts
- Immediate release of all those detained on the grounds of their political activities or for crimes arising from such activities
- Amnesty for all convictions resulting from displacement or asylum, especially unlawfully crossing the country’s borders or abandoning a post
Finally, Few Recommendations:
To the main stakeholders and Turkey is one of them:
- Resolving the internal issues will not be accomplished through the politicization of refugees which will only end in dehumanizing rhetoric and behavior against them, but rather by investing the considerable influence over the situation in Syria by focusing on resolving the main issue in Syria and pushing forward the political process with a focus on the SE and securing the conditions for a real Safe, Voluntary, and Dignified return as defined by Syrian Displaced themselves. These are the initial and inevitable steps.
- Premature return will result in no solution, it will violate the lives of Syrians and contribute to lasting instability of the region.
- The displacement waves will continue and the lack of stability as well, until the SE will be in place.
- Help establishing formal mechanisms within the Geneva political process to incorporate in a direct and effective manner a legitimate participation of displaced Syrians in the process, and make the rights of the displaced Syrians an integral part of the discussion shaping up the future of the country and the fate of its citizens. Such mechanism should ensure the direct participation of the displaced Syrians in defining the conditions for a safe, voluntary and dignified return, and the definition of a safe environment.
- Ensure services, aid, and legal rights are afforded to refugees and work to provide continuity of care to these communities to prevent premature and unsafe returns.
OSE: Securing the rights and minimum conditions for return as expressed by refugees and IDPs is a fundamental part of any political solution and its individual elements, such as the new and credible Constitution or elections.
- Must take into account the minimum conditions for return defined by the displaced Syrians when determining the minimum standards for return.
- Engage with Syria’s displaced to assess the current thresholds and adjust these in line with their views.
- Provide clear and timely information about the current conditions and work that needs to be undertaken to meet the minimum conditions for return.
In the end, we will continue to struggle, building the movement, gathering the displaced, defending our rights and practically interpreting them in order to shape the solution in Syria that Syrians want and see.