‘Thousands’ of Syrian refugees return from Jordan to southern Syria as ceasefire enters third month

AMMAN: Thousands of Syrians in Jordan have abandoned their status as refugees and voluntarily returned to Syria’s southern Daraa province in recent weeks, opposition officials say, as a ceasefire there enters its third month.

More than 1,300 families—roughly 6,500 people—crossed into Syria’s Daraa province from Jordan since early July, a source in the opposition Daraa provincial council told Syria Direct. The provincial council documents all arrivals as they cross into the province from Jordan.

The reported influx of returnees comes as a Russian-backed ceasefire covering Syria’s southern provinces—including Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda—enters its third month. The ceasefire, brokered by Russia, the United States and Jordan, took effect on July 9.

In the six months prior to the agreement, from January to June 2017, just over 1,800 Syrian refugees returned to Syria, Olga Sarrado Mur, a representative of the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

But since the southern ceasefire began in early July, relative calm has prevailed in Daraa province, a base of opposition support whose eponymous capital city is in ruins following months of battles between regime forces and opposition factions and whose countryside has been repeatedly battered by airstrikes.

Refugees in Jordan are now citing the stability brought by the ceasefire as they voluntarily give up refuge and make the journey north, back to Syria, three recent returnees told Syria Direct.

One of the returnees is Salim Mansour, a 45-year-old who left the northern Jordanian city of Irbid and returned with his family to Daraa city last week, four years after he first fled Syria.

“There is nothing more beautiful than the moment when someone returns to their homeland after being in exile,” he told Syria Direct.  

Salim acknowledges that his choice to return was a risky one—leaving Jordan also meant abandoning his protected status as a refugee.

 Returnees cross into southern Syria from Jordan in August. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

“Refugees currently do not have the option to…return to Jordan following a spontaneous return to Syria,” UNHCR’s Sarrado Mur confirmed.

While Jordan currently hosts as many as 1.4 million Syrians, the country is no longer accepting newcomers. Jordan closed its border with Syria in 2016, citing security concerns.

If major violence returns to Daraa province, those who went back during the ceasefire will find themselves trapped.

“Of course I have fears that the bombing will return,” said Naima, 34. A single mother of three from Daraa city, Naima fled Syria in 2014. After three years in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, she returned to Syria in August. (For Syria Direct’s full interview with Naima, click here.)

“We grew tired of waiting for victory in order to go back,” she told Syria Direct this week. “All we can do is pray that the de-escalation agreement remains in place.”  

Salim says going home was worth it to him, even if violence were to return to Daraa.

“The emotional pressures that I was suffering from [in Jordan] were enough to kill me,” he said. “If the bombing returns, at least we will die in our country.”

‘They had no future’

While the majority of Syrian refugees live in Jordanian cities and towns across the country, at least 140,000 reside in designated refugee camps including Zaatari, where Naima lived for three years.  

“We tasted the bitterness of life in those camps,” she said, describing the banality of day-to-day existence in the desert camp, where a majority of residents, like her, are from Daraa province.

“Our lives were limited to securing our daily needs—ensuring we have water, going to buy food and doing housework,” she said. “Life had no flavor.”

“Our children began to think the camp was our country,” added Naima.

Shahada al-Ahmad, 41, was also concerned about his five children, who lived with him in the Azraq camp in Jordan’s eastern desert before they returned to Daraa in August.

“In the camp, I sent my children to school, but they had no future ahead of them,” the former farmer said. “I thought about what my children’s fate would be if we stayed in the camp.”

Once a refugee makes the decision to leave Jordan, the procedure is relatively simple, the three returnees told Syria Direct.

After making her decision to return to Syria, Naima says she applied to leave the country at a designated Jordanian government office in Zaatari camp. 

“The procedures were easy,” she said. When the government granted her application, she turned over her UN documents and camp IDs, and waited to depart.

Buses to the Syrian border leave from Zaatari several times each week. 

Although the final decision to leave is officially in the hands of each refugee, “those expressing an interest in return receive counseling from UNHCR Jordan to allow them to make informed decisions,” according to Sarrado Mur, the UNHCR representative.

“UNHCR does not encourage, facilitate or promote return to areas where it is neither safe nor sustainable to do so,” she said.

“Conditions for return in safety and dignity are not in place” in Syria, she added.

And while thousands have crossed back into Syria voluntarily in recent weeks, others have been forcibly sent back to Syria by Jordanian authorities, as Human Rights Watch reported in 2014. 

Such deportations would be a violation of international law barring refoulement, or the forced return of a refugee to a country where they are at risk of danger or persecution.

‘I cried when I saw the destruction’

Many of those returning to Daraa face new challenges posed by life in a province ravaged by years of conflict. 

In Daraa city, hundreds of regime and Russian airstrikes along with artillery shells from both sides have crushed civilian homes and shops. Some neighborhoods were “around 90 percent destroyed,” one resident told Syria Direct in July.

The countryside was not spared.

“I cried when I saw the destruction inflicted on my town,” said Shahada, who returned to the eastern Daraa countryside town of a-Naeema.

Some recent returnees have also reportedly found their houses occupied by displaced residents, many of them coming from other areas of Daraa that fell under regime control.  

At the same time, Daraa’s rural economy, largely reliant on agriculture, is in shambles, with regime control of roughly one third of the province blocking smuggled fuel and other essential goods from reaching civilians in opposition territory.

Returnee Naima says the challenges she faces in Daraa are an extension of what she already faced in Jordan since 2014.

"I will struggle to take care of my children here," she said, "just as I did in Jordan."

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.