A critical component of safe, dignified and voluntary return is access to reliable information about whether it is safe to return. This information helps the displaced understand whether their return conditions have been met, as well as the process involved. In particular, it might help highlight any inconsistencies between the process and their legal rights as refugees and IDPs to return home without fear of harassment or targeting. Previous SACD research shows that a staggering 87 per cent of surveyed Syrian refugees were confident that they had enough information through informal channels to judge whether their return conditions had been met in their areas of origin; informal sources such as family and media were their main sources of information. However, further questioning revealed they were unaware of critical and potentially life-threatening components of the regime’s requirements for return.
A closer examination of one key mechanism used by the regime in dealing with refugees who are considering returning now shows that their sense of being informed about the conditions on the ground is utterly misguided. SACD surveys revealed a potentially dangerous lack of real information from those supposed to be informing them on all aspects of return conditions, including the UNHCR.
People who wish to return to Assad-held areas must now sign a “reconciliation document” in order to return—particularly those who left the country without official documents or permission, as is the case for many refugees. The content of the document, which must be lodged with the Syrian embassy in the host country before being allowed to return, speaks of “addressing the situation of Syrians who left the country illegally, due to the current circumstances and (…) settling their military conscription and other security issues, regardless of the circumstances that compelled them to leave”. Signing the document amounts to a confession of having committed a legal violation by leaving the country.
Some 80 per cent of people surveyed by SACD stated they did not have any meaningful information about the content of this document. Of the 20 per cent who did have some information about it, most believed it was tantamount to an admission of committing crimes against the state. When asked if they thought that such an admission could later be used against them in criminal proceedings—either by raising a personal lawsuit or raising a public right claim—nearly 54 per cent reported that they were aware of the possibility of being prosecuted under the reconciliation document; 46 per cent indicated that they did not know if it was possible to be prosecuted according to this document.
Study participants who wish to return were asked about their willingness to sign the reconciliation document, and 98 per cent of those wishing to return confirmed that they would not sign, and that this document would be an obstacle to their return.
This practice is seen as a major obstacle to return, epitomising the regime’s continued subjugation of potential returnees. The series of responses about the reconciliation process highlights another worrying trend. Despite 87 per cent of people stating that they had adequate information about returning and the conditions for return, nearly the same percentage had no information about the “reconciliation process”. When given the information during the survey, they then said this would present a major barrier to return. These responses make it clear that refugees and IDPs do not currently have adequate information about the conditions or returns processes and their potential to violate both their rights as IDPs and refugees, and to risk their personal security and freedom in the future.
UNHCR’s reporting tools, designed to provide granular information and analysis of obstacles and conditions for return, and identifying the necessary actions to address them, simply do not exist. Its monthly Operational Update, itself geared towards member states and donors, sets out various sets of numbers, including those of “spontaneous returns,” different ways that the agency is helping the refugees and returnees, with a heavy emphasis on the donor-driven language of “impact” and not a single mention of specific obstacles to return or reality facing those forced to return due to difficult living conditions or anti-refugees’ sentiment in host countries.
It speaks of gathering information at the community level to inform on gaps in infrastructure and services, and “other recent developments” that may have an impact on Syrians’ return, but such document is not publicly available or accessible by the displaced Syrians. It indicates that such a document compiles laws that Assad’s regime has passed to supposedly “facilitate” return without monitoring their implementation or impact on refugees’ intentions. It makes no mention of the series of discriminatory laws and decrees passed by the regime aiming to strip the displaced Syrians of their properties and tenancy rights, such as Law 10 or Law 6.
Most importantly, the Operational Update nor any of the other UNHCR’s public documents does not make a single mention of the security risks for returnees or its lack of access to monitor and report on its own protection thresholds in the majority of Assad-held areas.
In addition to this consistent failure to inform the displaced people through its own public communication of the reality in Assad-held areas, UNHCR’s own communication assets such as social media accounts or statements by senior officials are sending mixed messages which give an impression that it is safe to return, thus directly encouraging premature and uninformed returns, which often lead to persecution and suffering of returnees.
A number of such cases were reported on by SACD, including during the UNHCR’s head Filippo Grandi’s visit to Eastern Ghouta or meetings with the Syrian regime officials in Damascus. Such repeated messaging of this kind on similar occasions, which consistently fails to address the security threats facing potential returnees, speaks of a systematic approach which paints a deeply misleading picture of the reality in Syria. This speaks of UNHCR’s failure to fulfil the Syrian refugees’ right to know about the conditions facing them in several key areas:
- Failure to report accurately, promptly and comprehensively on the security threats, arbitrary arrests, forced recruitment, harassment, extortion, lack of basic services and other forms of abuse suffered by a significant number of refugees and IDPs who returned to Assad-held areas to date;
- Failure to transparently report on UNHCR’s lack of access to monitor conditions in potential return areas or the condition of returnees in the large majority of Assad-held areas and inform the relevant international bodies and facilitate appropriate political or policy discussions affecting displaced Syrians;
- Failure to include a comprehensive, detailed and contextually-aware reporting on its own protection thresholds in its regular reports, including Operational Updates and other UN reporting tools such as HNAP Returnee Overview, thus contributing to a skewed, misleading picture on the situation awaiting returnees, which has serious consequences many who lack basic information on the reality in Assad-held areas before making the decision to return;
- Failure to clearly communicate to the relevant international bodies that it has no way to ensure that returnees are not persecuted by the regime, which should be an absolute minimum before any conversation on the return of the displaced occurs.
The UNHCR must, therefore, cease the misleading messaging on the “improving security situation” for returnees, and improve communication, information, and counselling with Syria’s displaced to ensure they are aware of all factors and conditions that might impact their returns decisions, including information about how current conditions and returns procedures impact their rights, and make this communication approach an integral part of future media campaigns.
Below is the detailed breakdown of descriptions of protection thresholds not being met.
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 1
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 2
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 3
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 4
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 5
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 6
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 7
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 8
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 9
- UNHCR Protection Threshold 10
- UNHCR CPSS Protection Threshold: Significant and durable reduction of hostilities.
The Normalization of Horror report issued by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity in 2021 found that about 50 per cent of respondents in Assad-controlled areas do not feel safe, including those who did not leave immediately. Most of them refer to the grip of the security authorities, insecurity, and outbreaks of violence. Crime is a reason for not feeling safe, and 67 per cent of returnees from outside Syria do not feel safe. Those who live in the areas of reconciliation are the worst, with 94 per cent saying they do not feel safe. They indicated that there are no secure areas, and some practical safety measures show that security is fragile everywhere; Because of the security policies by the same authority.
According to SACD research, 79 per cent of the respondents expressed their resentment at the absence of the rule of law and the extreme deterioration of the security service.
The annual report issued by SNHR launched at 15th March 2022 documented that 228,647 Syrian Civilians were Killed, including 14,664 by torture, with 151,462 arbitrarily detained/forcibly disappeared, and 14 million others Displaced.
According to the latest report issued by the SNHR, the information records the killing of 67 civilians, including 20 children and three women, at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria in March 2022, of whom the Syrian regime killed seven civilians, including one child. While Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham killed one woman, ISIS killed one civilian. It also recorded the killing of 5 civilians at the hands of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. According to the report, 53 civilians, including 19 children and two women, were killed by other parties.
According to the same report, the analysis of the data showed that the Daraa governorate, supposed to be a reconciliation area where military operations stopped years ago, topped the rest of the governorates with approximately 40 per cent of victims documented in March 2022, followed by Deir Ezzor governorate with approximately 21 per cent, while Aleppo came in third with about 16 per cent of the casualties.
Hostilities do not mean only military actions such as shelling, bombings, and battles, but also arrests, enforced disappearances, field liquidations and other crimes are among the hostile acts carried out by the Syrian regime towards the Syrian people, just as reducing hostilities does not mean killing several people. Less than the Syrian people are at the hands of the regime, but rather stopped completely and permanently. In 2021, the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies killed 326 people, in addition to the liquidation and killing operations carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which killed 75 people and other military forces that target the Syrian people. In 2021 the Syrian regime arrested 1032 people, including 23 women and 19 children.
SACD also documented 520 cases in the countryside of Damascus, Daraa, and northeastern Syria, distributed between kidnappings and arrests by military forces on the ground.
These statistics and others are an indication that the hostilities against the Syrian people did not stop and are continuing without interruption, decline or relentlessness.
SACD’s research has also found that the proportion of detainees among the participants since the beginning of the conflict is high; but it confirms that this trend is still continuing, as there was a noticeable increase in 2019 and 2020 until September compared to 2018, despite the fact that the regime was launching major military attacks on Idlib and Aleppo in 2018 and gaining more land.
- UNHCR CPSS Protection Threshold: Conclusion of a formal agreement with the government, host countries, and other actors as required to receive returnees.
According to SACD research, 94 per cent of the participants who feel insecure are those who conceded to so-called Personal Legal Status Settlements as part of their overall ‘reconciliation agreement’, while 72 per cent of the returnees arrested were covered by the regime’s alleged pardon decrees and/or entered into Personal Settlements after staying in areas of reconciliation.
Up until 2022, and despite holding more than one conference in Damascus to call for the return of Syrian refugees, no country hosting Syrian refugees has concluded an agreement with the Syrian regime regarding returns. Yet some hosting countries are pursuing policies that force Syrian refugees into an unsafe and premature return, despite the fact that these refugees do explain the dangers they will face upon such return.
Amnesty International’s report in September 2021 titled “You are going to die: violations against Syrian refugees returning to Syria” emphasized that Syrian intelligence officers have subjected women, children and men returning to Syria to unlawful or arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment, including rape and sexual violence. All returnees face the allegations that they were affiliated with the opposition groups, which puts their lives upon return at grave danger. Based on these findings, Amnesty International concluded that there is no safe area in Syria for the refugees to return to, including the capital Damascus and its surrounding areas, and that people who have left Syria since the outbreak of the conflict there are at real risk of persecution upon return. The report stated that the Lebanese authorities deported about 6,000 Syrian citizens between mid-2019 and the end of 2020, which essentially violates the principle of non-refoulment.
- UNHCR CPSS Protection Threshold: The government/actors in control of the return area provide genuine guarantees that returnees will not face harassment, discrimination, arbitrary detention, physical threat, or prosecution on account of originating from an area previously Or currently under de facto control of another party to the conflict; for having left Syria illegally; for having lodged an asylum claim abroad, or on account of any (individual or family) diversity characteristic.
In one of SACD’s surveys, two-thirds of the interviewees stated they live in constant fear of arrest or harassment from the security services and various militias that run a maze of checkpoints—particularly those in or from areas under “reconciliation agreements.” Militias rely on a network of informants to identify returnees and those who accept “reconciliation agreements” for targeting. People are stopped, harassed, threatened, and arrested by these groups to extort money on the spot or from their families.
Corruption and extortion by the regime and militias permeate every aspect of life for returnees. Interviewees reported having to pay bribes to carry out the most menial of activities, such as obtaining documents or transporting produce to the market. Almost all industrial and other economic activity in these areas has ceased, so farming is often the sole source of income. The regime is exploiting this situation by enforcing a ban on the transfer of goods and products beyond local areas under “reconciliation agreements”, which forces returnees to sell their produce to the pro-regime monopolists.
Two-thirds of the returnees have lost their former source of income and are now unemployed or engaged in manual, temporary work that cannot provide a basic standard of living for their families.
According to the same survey, 48 per cent of the participants stated that they or their family members were wanted by the regime security branches for reasons related to anti-regime civilian activities, even including anti- regime sentiments.
72 per cent of the returnees who were arrested were covered by the regime’s alleged pardon decree No. 13 and/or entered into personal settlements after remaining in these areas after reconciliation agreements.