Returning refugees face ‘grave abuses’ in Syria: Rights group

'Syria is not safe for return,' says Human Rights Watch report.

Returning refugees face ‘grave abuses’ in Syria: Rights group

The Syrian refugees who returned to their home country between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced “grave human rights abuses and persecution” by the Bashar al-Assad regime, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released Wednesday.

“Returnees also struggled to survive and meet their basic needs in a country decimated by conflict,” the New York-based HRW said in a 72-page report titled Our Lives Are Like Death: Syrian Refugee Returns from Lebanon and Jordan.

According to the report: “Syria is not safe for return.”

The rights group interviewed 65 returnees or family members, and “documented 21 cases of arrest and arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture, three kidnappings, five extrajudicial killings, 17 enforced disappearances, and one case of alleged sexual violence.”

The group also spoke with three lawyers from Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon and four researchers and experts on Syria, plus representatives of NGOs as well as UN and humanitarian agencies in Jordan and Lebanon.

“UNHCR, the UN agency mandated to provide international protection and humanitarian assistance to refugees, maintains that Syria is unsafe and that it will not facilitate mass returns in the absence of key protection conditions, though it will facilitate individual voluntary returns,” the agency said. “All countries should protect Syrians from being returned to face violence, torture, and halt any forced returns to Syria.”

The report also cited a 38-year-old refugee in Lebanon who returned to Syria as saying: “No one will be safe in Syria until they stop the security agencies from terrorizing people.”

According to the report, some countries “promote returns”.

The HRW also blamed Denmark for setting “a dangerous precedent from within the European Union by removing the ‘temporary protection’ status of people from Damascus and Damascus countryside.”

“Denmark should repeal its decision to remove temporary protection for Syrian refugees from Damascus and Damascus countryside and the European member states should not introduce any similar legislation,” it added.

Situation in Lebanon, Jordan

According to the report, both Lebanon and Jordan welcomed the refugees at the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011. As the number of refugees increased in Lebanon, Beirut began adopting “coercive and abusive measures.”

The report said: “Authorities in Lebanon have pursued an aggressive returns agenda, with decrees and regulations designed to make Syrian refugees’ lives difficult, and to pressure them to leave.”

On Jordan, the report said, the country “has not publicly pushed for large-scale organized repatriations and has granted some legal work opportunities to Syrian refugees. But closing important categories of employment to non-citizens limits the jobs Syrians can work.”

“Despite increasing levels of vulnerability in Lebanon and Jordan, the number of spontaneous refugee returns to Syria has not significantly increased,” the report said. “Those who do return are often under extreme pressure, with limited information on conditions inside the country.”

The report called on international donor governments to “use their leverage against such practices as summary deportations and forced returns, which amount to a breach of non-refoulment obligations – not returning people to a place where they could face threats to life and freedom and other serious harm.”

“While active hostilities may have decreased in recent years,” the report said: “The Syrian government has continued to pursue the same abuses against citizens that led them to flee in the first place, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and torture.”

Syria has been embroiled in a vicious civil war since early 2011 when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity. More than 5 million civilians have since been displaced.

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Hüseyin Demir

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