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The politics of return: Refugees, NGOs navigate increasingly fraught climate in host countries

When Abd al-Majid al-Qalamouni* first arrived in Lebanon six years ago, he felt like he was met with “empathy." “In the beginning everyone wanted to stand by your side,” al-Qalamouni tells Syria Direct. “They saw me as a human being, a refugee who’d fled war.”

10 April 2019

AMMAN: When Abd al-Majid al-Qalamouni* first arrived in Lebanon six years ago, he felt like he was met with “empathy.”

“In the beginning everyone wanted to stand by your side,” al-Qalamouni tells Syria Direct.

“They saw me as a human being, a refugee who’d fled war.”

But that hospitality wasn’t to last.

By 2014, the number of registered refugees in Lebanon had risen above one million, making it the country hosting the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

As financial pressures built up on the already indebted, dysfunctional state, and with hardline Islamist groups posing a growing threat on the country’s borders, the Lebanese government radically changed its course in 2014—passing a series of stringent policies towards refugees with the explicit aim of encouring them to return.

Getting or maintaining legal residency in Lebanon became far more difficult. Thousands of Syrians were pushed into the margins of society.

“They started vetting us for anything…whether it was renewing your residence permit or [allowing] Syrians to enter,” al-Qalamouni says.

And now refugees like al-Qalamouni say that the pressure to return these days is more palpable than ever.

“You hear it everywhere in the streets: ‘The areas you come from are safe now, you have to return’,” he tells Syria Direct.

Just last month, in a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil appeared to suggest that returning to Syria should not have to be voluntary.

“It is time for their return,” Bassil concluded.

Over the past year, sweeping territorial gains by the Syrian government have made way for an increasingly ubiquitous narrative—particularly pushed by the Syrian government and its Russian allies—that the war is coming to an end, and that it is safe for refugees to return.

Building off of this narrative, policymakers in refugee-hosting countries, from Lebanon and all the way to Europe, are increasingly pushing for Syrians to go home.

Amid dwindling donor funding for refugees, humanitarian organizations are now cautiously positioning themselves in this new political landscape, while purportedly down-sizing their presence in neighboring countries and turning their attention towards Damascus.

It’s an increasingly politicized landscape that has left ordinary Syrian refugees facing an impossible choice: balancing their fear of returning with the increasingly clouded prospects of building a sustainable future where they are.

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Lebanese Red Cross workers speak to Syrian refugees on their way from Arsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to Syria last July. Photo courtesy of AFP/Getty Images. 

 Returning in ‘safety and dignity’

Despite risks of conscription and arrest, along with costs and bureaucracy involved with getting documents in place, a fraction of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan have slowly started trickling back across the border.

Syrian state media regularly post images announcing the arrival of groups of refugees back across the border.

Somehow, UNHCR has to respond.

In a recent campaign video, UNHCR appealed for support in assisting Syrian returnees rebuild their tattered homes. Syrian children play among the ruins of an unnamed Syrian city—taking turns to slide down what’s left of a bombed-out cement ceiling of an apartment building—before a returnee father explains how, with help from the UNHCR, he managed to restore the doors and windows of his house.

The video is one of the scattered signs that the international community is trying to address returns, while turning their attention towards government-held territories within Syria.

Across the region, NGO workers talk of rounds of layoffs and funding cuts, claiming that organizations have started closing up shop in neighboring countries.

The shift in focus has triggered concern among local NGOs and Syrian refugees themselves, who fear that the projects in Damascus contribute to legitimizing the Syrian government and indirectly put pressure on refugees to return.

“Then they can say, ‘See how the services are returning to these areas? People should return’,” says Hisham al-Deirani, director of Turkey-based NGO BINAA, which provides humanitarian aid across the border in opposition-held Syria.

The growing talk about returns has put the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in a seemingly impossible position—supporting the fraction of the six million refugees outside Syria who actually want to go back now, but doing so without incentivizing more returns.

One of the explicit aims of the UN and NGO international regional response plan for 2019 is to “ensure that any self-organized return is made in dignity, without incentivizing additional returns.”

So far, UNHCR has not been involved in organizing returns, although it says it “respects” the individual decisions of some refugees to return. In Jordan, the agency facilitates transportation from some refugee camps to the Syrian-Jordanian border crossing for refugees who cannot afford the trip themselves.

“UNHCR is supporting those refugees who are making the choice to return so they can return in dignity,” says Rula Amin, spokesperson at the UNHCR’s regional office in Amman, adding that their position is “apolitical and consistent with established international humanitarian standards.”

The agency “works with the Syrian government and all other relevant countries to advocate and collaborate to improve conditions on the ground,” she tells Syria Direct, with the aim of making it “more feasible for refugees to return and re-establish their lives in safety and dignity.”

‘Spreading fear’

Safe and dignified return is considered one of the so-called “durable solutions” for refugees that the UN and international NGOs operate with.

At the international “Brussels III” donor conference hosted by the EU and the UN in the Belgian capital last month, the international community reaffirmed that conditions inside Syria are not yet suitable to start promoting or facilitating organized voluntary returns.

Even so, some host communities are increasingly pushing the agenda of return, adding pressure on both refugees and humanitarian organizations.

The Lebanese government in particular has toughened its rhetoric on returns, calling on Syrians to head back to areas of the country that it now deems “safe.”

Last April, the Lebanese government authorities began organizing returns to those “safe areas” of Syria, in coordination with Syria’s security apparatus. Since then between 55,000 and 90,000 Syrians have crossed the border, according to Lebanese officials. The numbers remain unconfirmed.

The involved parties claim that the returns are strictly “voluntary,” although refugees themselves point to inhumane living conditions, a hostile political environment and harassment as the main drivers of return. Human rights groups question just how voluntary returns are under those conditions.

Amin also acknowledged that politicization around returns and the “pressure refugees face…remain one of the main challenges.”

Navigating that landscape is not an easy task. UNHCR has already faced pressure from Lebanese authorities to change course.

Last June, Lebanese Foreign Minister Bassil ordered immigration authorities to freeze residency applications of UNHCR staff, accusing the organization of discouraging refugees from returning by “spreading fear.”

Bassil was referring to UNHCR’s efforts to inform refugees wanting to return about the potential risks involved.

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Syrian children riding their bicycle outside of the Azraq camp in Jordan in August. Photo courtesy of Khalil Mazraawi/Getty Images.

‘Pressure from two sides’

Not all neighboring countries have taken the same—hostile—stance as Lebanon. Jordan hosts around a million refugees, and yet Jordanian officials have struck a more conciliatory tone about their future in the country. 

Although the Jordanian government has repeatedly encouraged voluntary return of Syrians, Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz reiterated that an en masse return of refugees was not to be expected in the near future, suggesting that “conditions for their return are not present” at the moment and warning against donor fatigue.

The country’s foreign minister, Ayman a-Safadi, has not ruled out voluntary returns as an option, though.

Since the Jaber-Naseeb border crossing Jordan and Syria reopened last fall, more than 12,000 Syrians have returned, according to the UNHCR, with returns mostly taking place on an unorganized and individual basis.

Meanwhile, less than six percent of refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries surveyed by UNHCR last month expressed intentions of returning within the next year.

Fearing arbitrary arrests and harsh living conditions back in Syria, Ali al-Abdullah has no intention of returning to his home in the country’s southwestern province of Quneitra anytime soon.

Al-Abdullah arrived in Jordan with his mother, wife and four children in 2013.

And while he says he doesn’t feel direct political pressure from the Jordanian government or humanitarian organizations, he adds that declining funding and deteriorating living conditions are making him and people around him feel increasingly cornered.

“No one is forcing people to return,” he says. “[But] the conditions that refugees live under pressure them [to return] more than any political decision.”

Since arriving to Jordan, al-Abdullah has worked with a number of NGOs. But late last year, his status suddenly changed from aid worker to beneficiary, when he lost his job due to funding cuts.

Unsure about how to support his family, the former lawyer now sees few options in front of him.

“We don’t see any solution [to the situation in Syria] in the near future, and we don’t see the conditions improving for Syrians in the neighboring countries [either],” he explains.

“We are facing pressure from two sides.”

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A street vendor selling green beans in a low-income neighborhood of Gaziantep, Turkey in October. Photo courtesy of NurPhoto/Getty Images.

‘Nothing is for certain’

With more than 3.4 million Syrians on its soil, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world.

There, authorities have often been lauded for their efforts to ensure legal protection of Syrians, integrate them into the workforce and grant them free access to healthcare and education.

And despite long working hours, obstacles to obtaining work permits and restrictions on their freedom of movement, Syrians in Turkey tell Syria Direct that they feel well-treated by local residents and authorities.

But Turkey’s stance is changing. Political rhetoric around returns is increasingly hostile. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long promoted the idea of creating a “safe zone” in northern Syria—in territory currently under de facto Turkish control—to which Syrians in Turkey can return. Human rights groups claim Turkish authorities have forcibly deported thousands of Syrian refugees back across the border.

During last month’s local elections, Turkey’s right-wing opposition party also pushed a harsh anti-refugee agenda.

Fadi Najjar, a Syrian in his 30s originally from Aleppo, has worked with several NGOs since he first arrived to Turkey in 2012. His financial situation is stable, he says, and he has a work permit granting legal rights that many other Syrians simply don’t have access to.

But still, he’s constantly reminded of his status as a refugee. Every time he leaves home in Istanbul to visit his family in southern Turkey, Najjar says he’s faced with meticulous security checks.

“You feel like a criminal,” he says. “It’s humiliating.”

Either way, he says he has no intention of returning to Syria. Najjar says that he would be happy to stay in Turkey and build a life there if he were allowed, adding that most of his Syrian friends say the same.

That said, his life has come to be defined by uncertainty.

“My residency permit might be revoked at any time, and I could be deported to I don’t know where,” he says. “I don’t feel safe at all.”

Describing new waves of anti-refugee sentiment every few months, Najjar says he feels the pressure building up.

“Nothing is for certain,” he says. “I never think more than one month ahead now.”

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