‘The beginning, not the end’: What are the prospects of return for Syria’s internally displaced?

Syrians flee their homes in Idlib on September 6. Photo by Aaref Watad/AFP.

As the Syrian government gradually reasserts control over the majority of the country, officials have repeatedly called for not only refugees, but also internally displaced persons (IDPs), to return to the “embrace of the government."

And while displaced people in some parts of the country have indeed started to return to their homes in areas under renewed government control, displacements elsewhere haven’t stopped. According to UN estimates, almost 40,000 people have been displaced throughout Idlib province this month aloneamid widespread fears of an all-out pro-government offensive that has been put on hold, for now.

Unlike refugees, who by definition have crossed at least one country’s border in search of safety, the protection of internally displaced persons remains the responsibility of the government.

In the case of Syria, however, the government lacks the capacity to ensure the protection of 6.8 million people displaced within its borders. It has also actively used displacement as a tactic of war to retake opposition-held pockets across the country—often through a combination of sieges and bombardments that eventually left rebels with no other options than to either reconcile or board the government’s green buses heading towards rebel-held areas of northwestern Syria.  

In this interview with Syria Direct, Erin Mooney, a researcher and UNHCR policy advisor focused on internal displacement, outlines some of the central challenges to finding sustainable solutions for internally displaced around the world.

Even though it has been 20 years since the UN adopted the so-called “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”—a list of 30 guidelines setting out the rights of IDPs and defining who is responsible for their protection—Mooney says that there are still “tremendous gaps” in national and international responses to protect the rights of IDPs.  

Key challenges include ensuring housing, land and property rights for returning IDPs, Mooney tells Syria Direct’s Alice Al Maleh, drawing on 25 years of experience working in the field of internal displacement.

And while neighboring countries increasingly talk of returning Syrian refugees from outside the country despite the myriad risks and barriers involved, things are often just as complicated for internally displaced Syrians as well.

“It is often assumed that as soon as conflict ends or war ends, people will get up and return, or that return in and of itself marks a solution,” Mooney explains. “[But] that's usually the beginning, not the end, of a solution to displacement.”

Q: What are the main challenges for protecting IDPs, compared to refugees who have been displaced outside the borders of an origin country?

The fact that internally displaced persons are still within their own state means that the state bears primary responsibility for the protection of IDPs and other citizens in its territory. This means that protection relies on the capacities of the government to address internal displacement.

There may also be areas that are outside of the government's control, which is often the case in internal armed conflict.

And then there are challenges of political will. Political will needs to be present in order for IDPs to be adequately protected. In a number of countries around the world, particularly when the government is a party to that conflict, that political will can be a challenge.

Each context of course is different, [but] often it's a combination of all of these thingsboth the capacity and the will.

Q: It has been 20 years since the UN adopted the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. But how far have we come since then, in terms of ensuring the protection of internally displaced people?

It can be hard to be particularly optimistic when the scale of displacement globally has vastly increased over the past 20 years. But despite the worsening scale of the problem, a couple of developments indicate that progress [has been made].

In the early 1990s, notions of state sovereignty meant that the displacement of people within their own countries was still seen as a strictly internal matter for the state. The matter of sovereignty [was] almost a barricade for international scrutiny.

However, with the end of the Cold War and changing concepts in the understanding of sovereignty, internal displacement is now seen as a matter of legitimate international concernparticularly in cases where the state is unwilling or unable to fulfill its responsibilities to safeguard the welfare and safety of its own population.

That's quite a breakthrough.

But while these are steps in the right direction, we're not quite there yet. Even with these improvements over the past 20 years, there are still tremendous gaps in national and international responses to ensure that the rights articulated in the guiding principles are a reality.

Displaced children in the Atma camp in northern Idlib in September. Photo by Malik Abo Obayda for Syria Direct.

Q: It’s one thing to have a set of guiding principles establishing that the responsibility for protection lies with the government, but if the government is unwilling or even unable to secure the rights of internally displaced people—and some suggest that’s the case in Syria—then what mandate does the international community have to intervene?

These principles are based on existing international human rights law and international humanitarian law commitments. So it’s not so much a question of new laws or any sort of legal challenge, but about implementation.

The guiding principles flag that primary responsibility for internal displacement rests with national authorities, but in those cases where they are unwilling or unable to fulfill that responsibility there is also a role for international actors to offer help and to try to ensure a quick response. It is important to ensure that support is available if there is a capacity that is lacking. But there’s also a key role for advocacy, accountability [and] monitoring.

Q: In your research, you emphasize the importance of not only establishing internally displaced people as a separate, defined category of concern but also defining when their displacement ends. Why is this important?

Because IDPs are citizens or habitual residents of their country, we don't need to establish a formal legal category as we do in the case of refugees, who need a legal status to be regularized in another state.

The point about calling attention to IDPs as a category of concern is not so much as a legal category, because they would have all the same rights as other citizens or habitual residents of the country, but to make sure there is specific attention to the distinct needs of IDPs.

Displacement, whatever its causes, creates distinct needs: the loss of shelter, livelihood, family separation, loss of documents. These needs arise time and time again in situations of displacement and [they] wouldn't necessarily be [noticed] if you looked at protection of civilians writ large.

[Another] example is that even the act of forcible displacement can be a crime in international law if it's a deliberate displacement that is considered arbitrary. So just being displaced in some cases can be a crime.

[Ed.: Since 2016 in particular, the Syrian government has pursued a tactic of encircling and besieging rebel-held areas, cutting them off from the outside world and eventually forcing them into surrender agreements. Those agreements have seen tens of thousands of rebels, their family members and local civilians evacuated to other rebel-held areas in northwestern Syria. Human rights groups have previously stated that the government’s tactics of sieges followed by forced displacement amount to a “war crime.”]

Because there are distinct protection and assistance needs that warrant attention, it is essential to ensure that those distinct concerns are addressed, before shifting attention away from displacement.

It is often assumed that as soon as conflict ends or war ends, people will get up and return. Or that return in and of itself marks a solution. However that's usually the beginning, not the end, of a solution to displacement.

Q: One of the challenges with return that we have seen in Syria is that families sometimes return only to find their homes inhabited by other people. On top of that, most internally displaced people have been displaced repeatedly, from one place to the next, meaning that property may have changed hands repeatedly as well. All of this can make the return of internally displaced Syrians seem like an almost insurmountable task. Is it?

Housing restitution absolutely must be a part of any sort of peacebuilding or peace agreement because, unless it’s addressed effectively, property ownership disputes can be a new source of conflicteven a new source of displacement and violations.

Returning people to their properties does become a great challenge when other people are occupying the property: whether [the property was given] as a reward, for instance, to certain armed actors; or whether the new occupants are other displaced persons themselves.

Those two situations require very different approaches. Because if the new occupants are displaced persons who have in turn lost their house, the property is providing them temporary shelter, and measures have to be in place to give them a place to stay before they’re evicted and the rightful owners can reinhabit the property.

In Bosnia for instance, resolving housing and property restitution issues for one family often required secondary and sometimes tertiary housing solutions for other families, compounding the problem down the line so that each of the people who were affected by this would have a solutiona sort of complex domino effect.

When I left [Bosnia] a few years ago, there was a 98 percent restitution rate.

[Ed.: Syria Direct was unable to independently confirm this figure.]

[So having people return] is not impossible, but it takes time, investment and a great deal of unpacking of the legal issues to find solutions for people affected at all stages of the process. It takes the involvement of the international community, both in providing technical expertise and also in monitoring the process to make sure it happens in the proper way.

Hopefully, Syria can draw from historical examples and the lessons learnedBosnia, Kosovo and Iraq in particularand adapt those lessons to its particular situation.

Q: Given the complexities involved in property restitution, is return necessarily always the most sustainable solution? What other options are there for IDPs?

The key point is to follow the lead of the IDPs themselves. [And] IDPs can choose from a few [potential] solutions.

The first is for them to return to their original place of residence. Another is for IDPs to integrate into the area where they have been living while they’ve been displaced—[and] the last is for them to resettle in another part of the country.

It’s their right to choose [between these solutions], a right which is underscored by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. That right has to be safeguarded, and IDPs need to know they will be supported in whichever solution they choose.

Return is often the preferred solution, or at least it’s assumed to be a preferred solution. What’s vital is that return has to be voluntary. There absolutely cannot be forced returns of IDPs, nor of refugees. That would be contrary to international law and the principle of non-refoulement, [which] prohibits return to any place where people would be in danger or be subjected to violations of fundamental rights.

[Ed.: While the principle of non-refoulement is mostly referred to as the cornerstone of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which only applies to cross-border displacement outside the origin country, similar concepts are widely accepted as applicable in cases of internal displacement.]

Connected to this idea of voluntariness is that any decision should be a well-informed one. That’s the benchmark of voluntariness. IDPs and refugees both need to receive accurate, up-to-date and objective information about the situation in the area of possible return. What are the conditions they will be returning to? How will the return be organized? What kind of support can they expect in that area? To what extent have basic services been reestablished?

There are no wholesale solutions. Returns, or whatever solution IDPs choose, should be based on individual assessment. Additionally, any solution has to be supported by ensuring basic conditions: safety, livelihoods, access to basic services, justice and reconciliation. All things that require long-term investments and long-term independent monitoring in order to ensure IDPs achieve durable solutions.

This interview is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primerhere.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.

Sage Smiley

Sage is a current Syria Direct Media Trainee. She is a university senior who will graduate in April of 2019 with degrees in Journalism and Arabic and a minor in Chemistry. Sage works at a radio station in the US and her great passion is public radio; she is rarely out of the company of her audio recorder.