As fighting has subsided in the bulk of the country, some 250,000 refugees might be returned to Syria in the new year, Reuters reported on Tuesday.
If that feels like an ambitious aim for a country that has a shattered economy, still has pockets of fighting, and does not yet have a new post-conflict constitution, it is.
The numbers, forecast by the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, will be in addition to the 37,000 refugees who have already been returned to the country. But the Russian military has that number as 114,000.
Turkey has also been quietly deporting Syrian refugees for more than a year, determining that around 50,000 Syrians were “illegal” migrants in 2017. Turkey claims that approximately 250,000 Syrians have opted for voluntary return, though only a fraction of of those returns were overseen by U.N. staff, which try to ensure that asylum seekers aren’t being coerced into returning, even as the bloodiest operations to drive out ISIS were taking place.
Philippe Nassif, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International, told ThinkProgress that he’s skeptical of all those numbers. (ThinkProgress attempted to contact the UNHCR for this story but did not hear back in time for publication).
“I don’t think anybody has any credible numbers, frankly. I think there are some wide estimates out there that people can get. But… just look at those numbers and try to project how many can return next year, when the conditions most of this year have been pretty much the same,” said Nassif, pointing specially to country’s chaotic political, social, and economic conditions.
Russian military sources are likely getting their numbers from the Syrian regime, which, said Nassif, “is not fully capable of tracking these things.”
Also, people often move back and forth between porous borders, such as the one between Syria and Lebanon. And the fact is, there isn’t much of a protocol when it comes to returning people in a situation such as Syria’s — a country that is just only approaching post-conflict status, with so much still in flux.
“There hasn’t been any peace and reconciliation agreement between the regime and rebel groups that would make people feel protected under some sort of treaty,” he said, explaining that the situation facing Syrians is far from normal.
A treaty typically outlines conditions for the return of refugees, often with the involvement of the United Nations, but so far, there’s nothing like that for Syria, where at least 560,000 people have been killed since hostilities started in 2011.
The Syrian refugee crisis, which saw around 5.6 million people flee the country, was borne of two things: A seven-year conflict (an uprising that gave way to a vicious civil war) and a broken global asylum system that was neither prepared for the numbers nor provided for mechanisms of safe passage.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees are in countries neighboring theirs: Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
Owing to hardline, anti-immigration sentiment, western countries have been reluctant to accept Syrians in any consistent manner, leading to deals such as the one between Turkey and the European Union (in which the E.U. paid Turkey to keep millions of Syrian refugees from reaching Europe) and the E.U. plan to trap thousands of refugees in cramped, filthy camps on Greek islands, keeping them off the mainland and, therefore, out of the rest of Europe.
Forced returns are also a fear among the refugees in Lebanon, said Nassif, though those fears have not yet been realized, at least in a major way.
The war might be over, but…
The end of Syria’s bitter civil war does not equate safety for the country’s civilian population.
It’s up to Damascus to resolve certain issues — for instance, who will get re-settled in the country and where. This is crucial as remnants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) and other armed groups remain in the country, with security experts already telling ThinkProgress they worry that missteps would lead to the rise of an ISIS 2.0 or something like it.
“That is a very real threat,” said Nassif. “You’ve got the same conditions that lead to the conflict, still in place. The same problems are in place. Unless any of those social and economic issues are addressed, you are going to leave the door open for a really bad element to re-emerge,” he added.
Then there’s the issue of how much concern or a care a government that rounded up its own people, tortured thousands to death, and deployed chemical weapons on civilians will expend on resettling refugees and whether it will refrain from exacting a price from those it sees as disloyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
“There is a real climate of fear that has not lifted, whatsoever,” said Nassif.
“The Assad regime is in control of most of the country and there have been extrajudicial killings going on for years across Syria,” he added, pointing to a 2016 Amnesty International report that estimated some 13,000 prisoners had been secretly hanged — by the government, not by ISIS or any other terrorist group — in one prison alone between 2011 and 2015.
“Many people don’t want to return to those conditions, and fear retribution from the government or fear being targeted by remaining rebel groups,” said Nassif.