Is Syria safe enough for refugees to return home?
Andrej Mahecic, spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that approximately 500,000 Syrians have returned to their homes since the start of 2017. He added that the agency was seeing a “notable trend of spontaneous returns” to and within Syria.
Mahecic noted that most of the returnees went to Hama, Homs and Damascus, all of which were controlled by the regime of President Bashar Assad. Mahecic expressed that the conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity were not yet in place; however, the UN announcement, made at the end of June, was received with optimism that some level of security had been restored following advances made by Syrian regime forces.
The announcement is problematic in that it implies that some parts of Syria have become safe again, suggesting that the causes of the refugee crisis, notably the reported brutality of the Syrian regime, have diminished.
UNHCR stated that close to 31,000 refugees had returned to Syria from neighbouring countries this year, in addition to more than 440,000 internally displaced people moving home. Since the war in Syria erupted in 2011, more than 5.5 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries and Europe. Another 6.3 million were internally displaced within Syria.
Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, reported, however, that a closer examination of the refugee crisis shows that far more refugees were leaving Syria than were returning home, citing a lack of security as the major obstacle to their return.
Balanche, citing UNHCR data, wrote that, from January through May, the number of registered Syrian refugees increased from 4.9 million to 5.1 million. The only declining figure, he noted, was the number of internally displaced.
“Anyone assessing such trajectories must be extremely careful to account for manipulation of data for political purposes,” Balanche wrote, explaining that the definition of internally displaced people is broader than that of refugees and entails anyone who has left home — for short or long distances. In the case of Syria, this means if a Syrian left his or her home for one reason and was able to return for another, that does not necessarily suggest a return to safety.
In UNHCR’s recent survey, only 6% of Syrian refugees polled said they would return home in the near future.
In a 2015 poll, conducted by the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre, 70% of Syrian refugees surveyed said they fled Syria because of the Assad regime bombardment and 32% blamed the Islamic State (ISIS).
However, as the balance of military dynamics in Syria shifts in favour of the Assad regime forces, the near future has very little to offer to Syrians hoping to return home.
Fear of bombardment, kidnapping, detention and persecution are among the many reasons Syrian refugees are not returning. Syrians displaced to neighbouring countries are facing increasing pressure in their host countries, in light of the decline in international aid and growing resentment among local communities.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, for instance, are largely unable to obtain work permits and residency status. These challenges may push some Syrians to return to parts of Syria, where they will be faced with a new set of challenges at home.
Recent agreements among international powers, including Russia, Iran and Turkey, call for the establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria, which could become safe havens for refugees. In the aftermath of these agreements, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said that, although violence has decreased in some parts of the country, it has not in others.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said he does not believe that the situation in Syria allows for the creation of safe zones, citing that areas that appear safe today could come under attack tomorrow. “Let’s not waste time planning safe zones that will be set up because they will not be safe enough for people to go back,” he said.
As witnessed in Syria, mass atrocities lead to mass displacements. There has been no international ability or will to find protection for the unprecedented numbers of refugees who have fled the country since 2011.