Syrian refugees in Beirut prepare to depart for Damascus in September. Anwar Amro/AFP.
Years of warfare have left much of Syria in ruins, with five million Syrians displaced internally and another six million living as refugees abroad—making Syrians the largest displaced population in the world.
Now, as fighting between the Syrian government and rebel factions winds down in some areas, Damascus—along with neighboring countries and other states—is calling on Syrian refugees to come home.
“Syria needs its sons and daughters now, and welcomes them by easing their return,” Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim, told reporters earlier this month following a meeting with the Lebanese foreign minister.
“Syria is in need of hands,” he added.
But as the government and its allies encourage Syrian refugees to return home, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations—including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—warn that “significant risks” await those thinking of returning.
Syrian returnees face a “myriad of obstacles,” says Ali Ali, a refugee expert and lecturer at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. “It simply isn’t safe for refugees to return yet.”
According to Ali, the coming years could see more displacement rather than less, as the Syrian government reasserts control over entire sections of decimated cities as part of an ambiguous urban renewal scheme.
Refugee return is an inherently geopolitical issue—one rooted in the Syrian government’s interest in post-conflict economics and international legitimacy, Ali says, adding that returning Syrians will bring capital that could be used to rebuild Syria on a community-by-community level.
“If all of these refugees returned, then [the government] can point this out to the international community and say, ‘Look, the war's over—come back to Syria and help us rebuild the country’,” Ali tells Syria Direct’s Justin Clark.
The Syrian government is unlikely to shoulder the burden of reconstruction alone, and its allies are unlikely to make up for the shortfall, says Ali. “Humanitarian agencies are often conduits for government money from the international community,” he tells Syria Direct. “The Syrian government would like these organizations to be back in Syria.”
If Syrians return to find their homes gone and few options for remaining, Ali predicts that the Syrian government may find new leverage for dealing with Western countries reluctant to accept Syrian refugees.
“The more people return, the greater the demands the Syrian government can make on the international community,” says Ali.
Q: Talk of Syrian refugee returns has dominated headlines in recent months—often centered around the idea that as fighting dies down, Syria and neighboring countries are going to start looking forward and facilitating the return of refugees.
At the same time, most international humanitarian organizations—not least UNHCR—advise Syrian refugees against returning, warning that return poses “significant risks.” Do you think the infrastructure is actually in place to facilitate those returns?
The first thing you have to consider is that this idea of return is based in geopolitics. What appears to be happening is that Russia, Assad and perhaps even the US would like the world to think that the war is over and that it is completely fine for Syrians to return to their homes and back to Syria.
But it just isn't the case. Humanitarian organizations are correct to say that it simply isn't safe for [refugees] to return yet, politically; and many of the people who left Syria will be subject to some kind of serious security vetting or collective punishment when they return.
The other issue is infrastructure. What you have to remember is that since the early days of the uprising—since the fall of large cities—government forces made a strategic retreat and large areas of the country became rebel-held areas. The Syrian military deliberately attacked the infrastructure in these areas as a way of de-legitimizing, as well as punishing, the opposition.
The bombardment, combined with a lack of public services, water supplies, food and other basic needs of life, compelled millions to leave Syria.
So you have this myriad of obstacles. If [Syrian refugees] return to areas that are not government-controlled, they're going to return to decimated infrastructure and looming public health crises.
Q: Syrian state news recently quoted Syria’s Foreign Minister as calling on refugees to return home so they can contribute to the rebuilding of their communities.
It seems that part of the Syrian government’s impetus for returns is that they would like Syrians to come home, bring their money and their resources with them, and then contribute to rebuilding the battered communities that they fled years ago.
I think it's completely instrumental on the part of the Syrian government [to bring Syrians home]. For the Syrian government, their ideal situation, the ideal outcome, would be for the world to see that Assad has won, and for more people to return to Syria so they can extract resources from them. [This way], they can also re-legitimize themselves in the eyes of the international community.
What they would also like is for all of these humanitarian agencies that have been working in opposition areas—[because] the Syrian government forced many humanitarian agencies to choose between working in opposition or government areas—to come back and start working across all of Syria and bring resources into the country from the international community.
The Syrian government doesn't have any money. Russia doesn't want to pay for the reconstruction—it probably can't—[and] Iran doesn't want to pay for the reconstruction all by itself. If all of these refugees returned, then [the government] can point this out to the international community and say, ‘Look, the war's over, they've come back totally fine—so come back to Syria and help us rebuild the country.’
I think most Syrians would like to believe things will be better if they return but they need to see, particularly the ones who are from the areas that have been decimated by the conflict, they need to see some results.
Humanitarian agencies are often conduits for government money from the international community, whether for reconstruction, providing humanitarian assistance, development money or anything else. The Syrian government would like these organizations to be back in Syria.
If the government is the only, or is the primary, conduit for international assistance, this will empower the government over the population, because it can decide which areas get what.
The more people return, the greater the demands the Syrian government can make on the international community.
Q: We've already seen this to a certain extent with Law 10 and with Decree 66, two pieces of post-2011 legislation that empower authorities in Syria to launch reconstruction projects, and through which entire neighborhoods will likely be razed and then rebuilt.
If you’re a Syrian planning on returning home, how might these reconstruction initiatives affect your plans?
I think we have to keep an eye on Law 10 and how that changes things. Before the uprising, buildings had three types of statuses.
[Ed.: Law 10 for the year 2018 allows the Syrian government to designate areas for reconstruction. The law permits local authorities to give property owners a 30-day deadline to present proof of ownership in person, or else lose their holdings.]
The ideal status is a building built upon land owned by the person who built that building, and with a permit to use it for purposes other than agriculture. This is the “green” status—it’s less common than other designations and it’s much harder [for the government] to deal with legally.
Then, there are buildings built on land designated for agriculture. The owner doesn’t have a permit to build on that land, but it is their land. This type is probably the most common. Legally, [those buildings are] difficult for the state to demolish as they need to compensate the owner first.
The third type is a building that is built on state land without any kind of permit at all. This is the easiest [for the Syrian government,] as it can be demolished at any time without compensation. That's probably where you're going to see most demolitions and more of a push to kind of gentrify areas—to create these kinds of mall cities and, as a reward, parcel up that land to loyalists.
I think that what we're going to see is even more displacement. A lot of housing in Syria is built on government-held land without permits. I think in these situations where there was a rebellious population, in an area where housing has been built on government land without permits, I think you're going to see some kind of mass demolitions.
It's not really stable, it's not clear that Syrians returning will be able to return to their properties, to keep their properties, especially in opposition areas.
Q: If Syrians can’t return to these neighborhoods, or if they won’t at least be able to live in the rubble of these destroyed areas, what might happen to these former opposition-held areas in the long term?
It is possible that the Syrian government will persuade humanitarian organizations to return to Syria and to work with the government. And it’s possible the government will decide that it is in its best interest to return at least basic public infrastructure to functioning levels and prevent the outbreak of a very sudden public health crisis.
It's also possible that the government just won't do that; that it's just viewing these large, decimated opposition areas as a kind of wasteland—a price worth paying. They'll focus on areas that they control comfortably, that they haven't bombed, as a kind of useful population control tool.
Q: And what does that mean for returning refugees themselves, who could then risk ostensibly being turned into internally displaced people after return?
So if you have large numbers of Syrians returning and finding their areas of origin are just not livable, they have to go to Damascus, to Aleppo or to the coastal areas—[and] these are areas that are more comfortably controlled [by the government]. The old network of mukhabarat [Ed.: Syria’s constellation of notorious intelligence and security branches] security tools exists in those places, along with a network of pro-government militias that are harder to control but still, at least they're loyalists.
If you look at what the regime, the Syrian government, has had to offer to areas that it has retaken it is not very attractive. It's not as if as soon as they take an area over they start pouring resources into reconstruction—it remains as it was: bombed, and decimated. There isn't any evidence that the Syrian authorities are interested in reconstructing these areas.
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 primer here.