Zakaria Zakaria

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in late December that the humanitarian community had in November 2021 recorded some 13,700 spontaneous internally displaced persons (IDP) return movements across Syria, with a large percentage coming from the outskirts of the nation’s capital.

The report, posted on the UN body’s website on Dec. 28, said that this number was “43 % more than the return movements that were tracked in October.”

Of concern, however, is that it is unclear where these numbers are coming from or what particular social groups make up these numbers. The resulting confusion could easily mislead the international policymakers about what exactly these numbers mean and what they do not.

This is of key importance for determining whether an area is safe for Syrians to return to and whether they actually had a choice in doing so.

“Over 5,400 of these movements (39 per cent) occurred within Rural Damascus governorate,” it stated.

“At the sub-district level, the Markaz Darayya sub-district in Rural Damascus governorate received the highest number of spontaneous return movements in November, with around 2,500 returns, while Homs sub-district in Homs received some 2,000 spontaneous IDP return movements. Over the same period, Hajar Aswad sub-district in Rural Damascus governorate received more than 1,500 spontaneous return movements. The Jebel Saman sub-district in Aleppo governorate received more than 1,000 spontaneous return movements,” the report states.

The report failed to clarify where those returning were returning from or what were their reasons for doing so.

Daraya, which was inhabited by some 250 thousand citizens before the 2011 uprising and subsequent conflict, saw many its population move to areas that they considered safer during the war.

After the almost complete destruction of Daraya, an agreement was reached between the besieged population and the Syrian government.

The Daraya agreement stipulated that it be emptied of its population. Some of them headed to Idlib while others preferred to reside in temporary centers in the Harjala area in the western Damascus countryside under the Syrian regime monitoring.

The city, which had had nearly a quarter of a million people, became almost entirely bereft of residents.

The report also failed to mention that the Assad regime had on December 17, 2021 opened the door for the residents of Hajar al-Aswad, south of Damascus, to return to their homes after receiving approval from the Damascus Countryside Governorate.

This came after the people were prevented for years from entering the city except in exceptional cases, during which some were allowed to return to the Al-Thawra and Tishreen neighborhoods to “renovate their homes”, without allowing them to settle.

The owners of houses that need complete reconstruction were not allowed to enter the city: a number accounting for an estimated 40% of the population.

What is also surprising about the OCHA report is that it did not provide a comparison with numbers from previous years in relation to the areas named.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures, between 2020 and 2021, the number of returnees decreased: from 324,301 in 2020 to 82,560 as of August 2021.

There was also a decline in the number of the population in the Damascus countryside governorate in particular between 2020 and 2021, dropping by 15,521 people: a veritable mass exodus, it would seem.

The number of IDPs in Syria also increased between 2020 and 2021, rising to 213,721.

In addition, the reports did not differentiate between the number of people returning to the areas controlled by the regime, the opposition, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern parts of the country. There is ample evidence that families flee daily from the areas of the Syrian regime to the areas of SDF control, and from there to the opposition areas and then Turkey.

Through the previous statistics, we see a decrease in the number of returnees and a noticeable increase in the number of IDPs, both in terms of internal and external displacement/migration. There are no accurate numbers available; however, the recent Belarusian border situation and refugee boats to Greece provide some indication of the trends.

The report “Normalisation of Horror” issued by the Syrian Association for the Citizens’ Dignity in 2021, which sublimated interviews with some 500 Syrians living in regime-controlled areas and reconciliation areas, confirms that returning to areas under Assad’s control is not safe.

While emphasizing that return is necessary for the future of the country and for any political solution, only 26% of the respondents recommended the refugees to return to the areas controlled by the regime, while nearly half of the respondents themselves seek to leave these areas.

The UNHCR has confirmed that Syria is not safe and that it will not facilitate mass returns in the absence of basic protection conditions, and the number of refugees returning voluntarily to Syria has not seen a significant increase.

Those who return are often subjected to arrests, forced disappearance, extortion and intimidation, while there is only limited information on the conditions in the regime-held areas available to displaced Syrians.

In September 2021, Amnesty International documented violations against Syrian refugees who returned to their areas of origin, where they were subjected to arrest, disappearance, torture and rape at the hands of the Syrian regime forces, which proves that it is still not safe for Syrian refugees to return to their country.

The organization’s report “You’re Going to Your Death” criticized Denmark, Sweden and Turkey specifically for restricting protection and putting pressure on refugees from Syria to return home, as well as Lebanon and Jordan, which have the largest number of Syrian refugees after Turkey.

Also, a Human Rights Watch report issued on October 20, 2021, said that Syrian refugees returning to Syria from Lebanon and Jordan between 2017 and 2021 faced massive human rights violations and persecution at the hands of the Syrian regime and its militias.

The numbers provided by OCHA lack any of this context and it is not clear at all what message is the UN trying to send to displaced Syrians with such de-contextualized and misleading information. Considering the grave threats facing returnees to the Syrian regime areas, such irresponsible reporting may have serious consequences for any Syrian refugee or IDP who may interpret them as indicating it is safe to return, while at the same time they could serve to legitimize dangerous policies such as that of the Denmark’s government which withdrew protection from Syrian refugees from Damascus and Rural Damascus. The UN has a responsibility to lives and welfare of displaced Syrians and must do better in its reporting of the reality which exists in Assad-held areas.