Raymond Whitaker meets Syrian refugees in Lebanon who long to go home, yet fear that they will be pushed back before it is safe
Sitting in a makeshift tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, flanked by his wife and five of his children, Mohammed says he wants to go back to Syria. His eldest son went missing in the fighting that engulfed his country more than six years ago, and to this day the family does not know his fate.
Before the civil war, says Mohammed, who worked as a driver, ‘We were living peacefully. We didn’t have any debt. We lived day to day, [but] we felt secure.’ Forced by the conflict to escape into Lebanon, he is unable to find work, and the family’s debts are mounting. Only one of his children is in school. They receive help from the UN and CAFOD, a British charity, but the only money is earned by his two teenage daughters, who labour in the fields for $4 a day.
‘Of course we hope we will go back one day,’ says Mohammed. ‘It is our country, [but] the region where we lived in Syria is still at war. It hasn’t finished. Here it is better than back in Syria.’
Victory is in sight, however, for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Shia Muslim Hezbollah militia and even the United States. Relentless American air strikes were crucial to driving Islamic State from Raqqa, the declared capital of its ‘caliphate’, though at the cost of leaving the town in ruins. Now that fighting has eased off in many areas, Syria’s neighbours – Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which absorbed most of the five million Syrians who fled the country – are looking to the day that they can go home.
Few Syrian refugees, though, are willing to return in the foreseeable future. Some 20,000 crossed back into the country in the first five months of 2017, but many of those made it clear that they had been spurred purely by their desperate situation in exile. Even in the absence of conflict, Syrians have reason to fear that they might be conscripted or arrested if they return. Thousands are believed to have died in the Assad regime’s prisons, and tens of thousands more have been arbitrarily detained, many for years, with their fate unknown.
‘Syrian refugees have made it clear that short of ironclad guarantees for their safety, they will not go back,’ Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, told the Christian Science Monitor. But he added that ‘Syrian refugees in Jordan are clear that such safety guarantees cannot be given while the Assad regime stays.’ Since it seems increasingly unlikely that Assad will be dislodged, frustration among host countries is mounting.
Lebanon and Jordan say they will not compel refugees to return, but in both countries there have been incidents in which refugees were allegedly forced over the border. In August, Hezbollah escorted over 10,000 Syrians – resistance fighters, their families and refugees – from the northern Lebanese district of Arsal back into Syria. The UN took no part in the operation, and there were claims that many did not go voluntarily, causing fear among Syrians who have taken refuge in Lebanon. Several hundred Syrians are repatriated every month from Jordan, usually on security grounds, though aid groups say people are often given no time to appeal against removal.
Turkey, which has registered over 3 million Syrians on its soil, more than any other country, provides them with free healthcare and allows them to work. But few find proper jobs paying normal wages. In practice refugee children, working illegally for cash, are usually the ones offered work. Not only does this deprive them of an education, it stirs resentment among local people who are undercut when they seek jobs.
The situation is worse in Lebanon, where 1.5 million Syrians live among 4.5 million Lebanese citizens, the highest proportion of refugees to the local population in the world. With the country having played host to 450,000 Palestinian refugees for decades, the authorities have banned formal refugee camps for the Syrians, who are frequently forced to move from their informal settlements on agricultural land. Very few can afford the $200 fee to register their status legally. As a result they are open to exploitation.
Some Lebanese politicians, fearing that the influx of mainly Sunni Muslim Syrians will upset the delicate sectarian balance between Christians, Shia Muslims and other groups, are demanding that they should leave. In mid-October the Christian president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, told a Beirut meeting of representatives of the European Union, the Arab League and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that ‘my country cannot handle it anymore’.
Though the Sunni Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, has emphasised that there can be no forced returns, Aoun told the meeting there were parts of Syria not currently at war, and territory where calm had returned. Displaced Syrians should go back to such ‘stable and low-tension areas’ without waiting for a political solution to the entire conflict, said the president’s office. But the international representatives, echoing the stance of human rights groups, insisted that ‘a return of refugees to their country of origin must take place in safety, dignity and voluntarily, in accordance with principles of international law’.
This sentiment would carry more force with host countries if the international community lived up to its promises of aid to deal with what is acknowledged to be a long-term problem. But the latest progress report on the regional refugee situation by the UN and non-governmental agencies says only half of the $4.6 billion sought from the international community has been received, adding that this is ‘significantly lower’ than in previous years.
The shortfall is particularly acute in Lebanon, where only $620 million has been received, 30 per cent of the $2 billion sought. The report says that an increasing proportion of refugees are sinking below the poverty line, ‘confirming that the current level of humanitarian assistance is barely enough to keep people afloat’. Lack of funding means the international community will have difficulty reacting to what the agencies call ‘increasing tensions, with a rise in local restrictions and demonstrations aimed at Syrian refugees’. The outcome, they warn, could be that refugees feel compelled ‘to return prematurely’.
International attention has recently been focused on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, where the influx of Rohingyas fleeing into the region around Cox’s Bazar from Myanmar’s Rakhine state is the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. In terms of numbers, however, there are far more Syrian refugees, and their experience shows the problems that linger long after the immediate sense of urgency passes.
Another attempt to bring the parties to the Syrian conflict together, convened by the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is due, but no breakthrough in reaching a peace settlement is expected. In the meantime, Mohammed and his family remain helplessly in Lebanon, where they have been for four years. He arrived legally in the country, but his papers expired more than two years ago. Debts have forced the family to move from one informal camp to another.
‘I am not working,’ says Mohammed. ‘If I try to go to Beirut, where there is work, I will be arrested without papers. I am staying at home, but there is nothing to do. God knows when the conflict will end. We don’t know anything.’