AMMAN: When Abu Abdu, 26, crossed into Syria from southern Turkey in June, he planned for a temporary, two-month visit to his hometown west of Aleppo.
“I was certain I would return to Turkey,” the law student and father of two told Syria Direct.
Abu Abdu and his family were among more than 200,000 Syrian refugees who have traveled south from Turkey since June, according to figures provided by two Syrian border officials to Syria Direct. Turkish authorities granted the refugees, all of whom must hold Turkish identification documents, special permission to spend the major Islamic holidays in Syria and then return to relative safety in Turkey afterwards, within deadlines that vary at each crossing and according to each holiday.
Once the deadlines to return pass, crossing the border—which has been closed to regular civilian traffic since 2015—is no longer a legal option.
Abu Abdu’s deadline passed in August. He and his family, however, are still in Syria.
“When I saw the situation in Syria,” he said, “I decided I’d rather stay.”
He was not alone. Nearly 20,000 of the Syrians who left under the holiday program since June have remained in Syria, the border officials told Syria Direct. Those Syrians have now abandoned their protected status as refugees in Turkey to live in a war zone—albeit one increasingly characterized by new ceasefires rather than new battle fronts.
In honor of this year’s Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha holidays, which fell in June and late August, Turkish officials permitted Syrian refugees with proper identification documents to cross through two of the 11 official crossing points between Turkey and Syria. Travelers must enter and exit Syria through the same crossing.
About half of the Syrians used the Bab a-Salama crossing in northern Aleppo province. Bab a-Salama was open to holiday travelers for two separate periods since June, the latter of which ended last week.
Syrians cross from Turkey into northern Syria in June. Photo courtesy of Bab al-Hawa Crossing.
The other group of Syrians entered via the Bab al-Hawa crossing in opposition-held Idlib province. The final deadline for the travelers to return through through Bab al-Hawa to Turkey is in November, at which point the number of those who have stayed in Syria permanently is likely to rise further.
This year’s holidays are not the first in which Syrian refugees in Turkey were allowed to return home for a temporary period, but the number who chose to remain permanently after similar journeys in previous years was “very small,” a spokesman at the Bab al-Hawa crossing told Syria Direct. “It was rare.”
One year ago, the Islamic State (IS) held large portions of the area just south of the Bab a-Salama crossing, the battle for Aleppo city was still raging and regime bombardment of neighboring, rebel-held Idlib was commonplace.
“The situation in the area certainly had a large impact” on the decision of whether to return for good, said Ahmad Haj, a spokesman at the opposition-administered Bab a-Salama border crossing in northern Aleppo province.
Pro-regime forces recaptured all of Aleppo city last December and, months later, Turkish-backed rebel forces cleared IS out of its last major holdings in the Aleppo countryside, ushering in a period of relative calm across the province.
Opposition stronghold Idlib, to the west, also witnessed a period of calm in the months following the May announcement of a Russian-backed plan for “de-escalation zones” across Syria. In September, Idlib was confirmed as the fourth and final zone.
The security situation in northern Syria was the primary concern for Abu Abdu, who entered Idlib province through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in June. He took a return date two months later.
“[It] gave me an opportunity to think,” he said. “If things didn't work out and I felt that the ceasefire wasn't holding, I still had the opportunity to go back to Turkey.”
Abu Abdu acknowledges that violence may continue. “Of course, security is relative—not 100 percent,” he said.
Just days after Idlib was confirmed as a de-escalation zone, regime and allied Russian forces unleashed a deadly airstrike campaign across the province’s southern countryside, Syria Direct reported at the time.
Since then, pro-regime forces have continued to strike portions of northwestern Syria intermittently.
“There was bombing just yesterday,” Abu Abdu said on Sunday. “But it’s much less than before.”
‘In Turkey, everything is expensive’
An improved security situation is among the main factors influencing the decision to return to Syria, said Rula Amin, UNHCR spokesperson for the Middle East and North Africa.
Other factors include family reunification and limited employment opportunities in host countries, she told Syria Direct on Monday.
Border officials check traveler documents at Bab al-Hawa in August. Photo courtesy of Bab al-Hawa Crossing.
Although Turkey—currently host to more than three million Syrian refugees—began granting work permits to Syrians in 2016, fewer than 20,000 permits have been issued. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are instead working in the informal economy, where wages are low and exploitation common.
“In Turkey, everything is expensive,” said Abu Abdu. “If you can’t work, you can’t live.”
While in Turkey, Abu Abdu says he was only able to find work as a carpenter and then as a painter, working for unlivable wages.
So he also took advantage of the holiday period in Syria to search for a job, and he succeeded—he now works as a notary at a court in Idlib province and is able to continue his legal studies on the side.
The opportunity to evaluate the situation in Syria over the holidays before making a final decision about whether to stay is not available to all Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Adeeb, a 22-year old student from the northern Aleppo countryside, returned to Syria from Turkey in June. Unlike the hundreds of thousands who have travelled under the holiday program, however, Adeeb had a one-way ticket.
During his six month stay in Turkey, Adeeb was unable to complete the complex and time-consuming process to acquire a Turkey-issued ID card.
The ID is not only necessary for Syrian refugees to participate in public services like healthcare and education, but also to partake in the holiday visit program.
When refugees arrive at the border as part of the program, they are required to turn over their Turkish-issued IDs before receiving permission to return and selecting a date on which to do so.
Syrians return to Turkey through Bab al-Hawa on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Bab al-Hawa Crossing.
Without an ID of his own, Adeeb had no guarantee of making it back to Turkey. So he had to weigh his options and make the decision to return before departing, knowing it could be a gamble.
He noted that the region had become “relatively calm” following the Russian-backed de-escalation agreement, but also said the cost of living in Turkey played a role.
“You have to work 12 hours a day to cover expenses,” he said. “Studying was impossible.”
After deciding to return, Adeeb crossed into Syria through the Jarablus crossing in northwestern Aleppo province, where Syrians can only travel in one direction. He was not offered a date to return to Turkey.
About 20,000 Syrian refugees permanently returned from Turkey in a similar manner—called “self-assisted return”—in the first half of 2017, according to UN figures.
It is not a move the UN recommends.
“UNHCR does not promote or facilitate refugee returns to Syria,” UNHCR spokesperson Amin told Syria Direct.
“The level of destruction of housing and infrastructure, basic services, social safety nets and livelihood opportunities inside the country is massive,” she said, adding, “the security situation remains volatile.”
If intense bombardment does return to northern Syria, Abu Abdu says there “might be some regret” about his decision.
For now, he’s content.
“Our situation is good. Much better than it was in Turkey.”