Syrian refugees coerced to return

Syrian refugees coerced to return
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 Thamer Karkot

March28, 2018


- Europe raises the red flag in front of Syrian refugees

- Human rights organizations: returning to Syria puts Syrian refugees in danger

- Europe welcomed Syrians with flowers and chocolate, while preparing a train back for them

- European agreements to coerce refugees to return

- Arab and Muslim states enforcing racist policies against refugees to pressure them to return.



The Syrian refugee crisis has transformed from being a purely humanitarian issue to a purely political one. Threats against Syrian refugees have escalated from racism and rejection to physical violence to force them to return to their country. Developments in the corridors of the government of European nations hosting Syrian refugees threaten new disasters that will once again ravage the lives of refugees. Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and facilitator of the UN working group on the safety and protection of Syrian civilians revealed that, “Officials are meeting in the corridors of government across Europe and the Middle East to discuss policies that will repatriate millions of Syrian refugees.” He describes these discussions as "unwise", while the German pro-immigration advocacy organization, ProAsyl has strongly criticized the discussions and the parties in favor of the forced repatriation of refugees, asserting that this is the "inappropriate" time to consider their return.


Dangerous Ground


Six European and international humanitarian and human rights organizations have warned that many lives will be at risk if Syrian refugees are forced to return. In a February report entitled Dangerous Ground, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, Action Against Hunger, CARE International, Danish Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee said that governments in Europe, the United States and the Middle East are closing borders, forcing Syrian refugees to return and are publicly contemplating these measures, putting many lives at risk. The organizations stressed in their statement that despite the changing military situation in Syria, the country is still “plagued by conflict and insecurity", as illustrated by the recent military operations in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta.


These warnings have come in the midst of increasing debate in Europe among political parties and governments about radically tackling the refugee issue. They also come within the context of growing hostility towards refugees and the emergence of populist and racist voices and political parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AFD).


Terrible Conditions


“The majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people live under terrible conditions,” Mr. Egeland said at the release of the Dangerous Ground report, warning that the return of refugees who have fled from war and violence would “…neither be safe nor voluntary.”

The military operation taking place in Syria presents a serious risk for the refugees who are forced to return. At the same time, the areas that have recently become quiet are at risk of exploding at any moment again. “No child should have to return home before it is safe," said the CEO of Save the Children, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, adding that many parts of Syria are now "unsafe for children," as “bombs are still falling and basic services like schools are hospitals lie in ruins”.



Destruction and explosions continue


The Syrian war, which entered its eighth year in March 2018, is witnessing a systematic escalation in military and combat operations. The defeat of the terrorist organization, ISIL, from its stronghold in al-Raqqa and the pursuit of its forces to the Iraqi-Syrian border has not led to a secure northern Syria. The same is true for southern Syria, the surrounding areas of ​​Damascus and the eastern outskirts of Hama. The war continues to kill nearly 100 people every day and wounds many more. The ongoing destruction tells us that Syria remains dangerous, contrary to those who call for forcing refugees to return. Christian Friis-Bach, the Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council stressed that a “safe and sustainable return means that you can return to your home, be safe and have access to water, schools and health clinics.”


Earlier this year, Friis-Bach visited Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. He said that he could still “…witness the destruction and still hear the bombings.” He reiterated his position that without a “…stable political and security solution, guarantees and reconstruction, we cannot and should not force people back.” He concluded that, “We need their return to be voluntary, safe and sustainable, or the future will be unforgiving and will remind us of our failures.”


Mr. Egeland perceives that at the moment “…even in certain so-called de-escalation areas, we've seen bloodshed, targeting of hospitals and schools, and death."


Walking on bodies


In Europe, rejection or welcoming of refugees ebbs and flows. But what is clear is that the period during which refugees were welcomed with flowers and chocolate has ended. For example, in Germany – which is hosting more than 650,000 Syrian refugees and over a million refugees overall from all nationalities – nationalist voices have become more popular. In last September’s parliamentary elections, the anti-refugee AFD made huge political gains, whereas the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) declined, as did their traditional allies, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).


To recap the meaning of these results, after five months of negotiations a reasonable coalition was formed between the CDU and SPD. The AFD’s parliamentary bloc fulfilled their electoral promise of proposing a bill to repatriate of Syrian refugees in late November. The party’s chief whip, Bernd Baumann explained his party's position that the situation in Syria has become "better" than before, so the German government should make arrangements with the Syrian regime and its president Bashar al-Assad to "organize the return of Syrian refugees from Germany to their country." The party added that the war in Syria is "nearing its conclusion" and that the fighting is now contained to only 10% of the territory.


The proposal was met with outrage, anger and rejection, especially among the two parties that won the highest number of seats in the elections. Both the CDU and SPD described the AFD proposal as "populist and naïve" and accused AFD MPs of not knowing anything "about the situation in Syria”, and that they want to" walk over the dead bodies."


The German Green Party also criticized the proposal, with MP Luise Amtsberg calling the right-wing party's demand "heartless and ignorant".


However, what was deeply surprising was that during the marathon negotiations to form a coalition between the CDU and SPD – that had rejected the previously mentioned proposal – the SPD conditioned joining the coalition to solving the refugee crisis, especially regarding the reunification of refugees who have received subsidiary protection status – a one year visa. This meant that the parties that had welcomed the refugees were now using them as a political card that led to them changing course on their support for refugees. At the same time, refugees will be closely monitoring a meeting scheduled in June for the interior Ministers of German states to discuss and decide which refugees should return, or more accurately, be deported.


Disturbing the status quo


The era of openly welcoming refugees has ended, and among the manifestations of the new era is deportation. Anti-refugee policies that are a tenet of European right-wing parties have become quietly acceptable among other parties as they are under pressure to form government coalitions and as public opinions shift. What is happening in Germany is not the exception. Anti-refugee sentiments have spread to countries that had previously opened their borders to refugees, as more and more right-wing parties are calling for their deportation. In Austria, following last year’s parliamentary elections in October, a coalition government was formed between the majority party, the conservative Austrian People's Party and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, which adopts anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies. Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party, said that voters have given them a clear mandate to address their security concerns. ‘Security concerns’ is code for risks related to immigration and refugees, especially after the rise in attacks committed by refugees in Europe last year.


In Denmark extreme anti-refugee sentiments have grown, centering on the idea that refugees disturb the Danish status quo – a dehumanizing idea that demonstrates a disregard for the tragedies and challenges that led refugees to choose other countries than their own. Leading these sentiments is the Danish People’s Party (DPP), which last December called for Syrian refugees to be sent home after a period of quiet that lasted for several months as a result of reconciliation agreements that reduced the violence and threatening to seek to "dismiss the government" in case of no action of this matter.


In Holland, a number of Dutch right-wing politicians have spoken out claiming that refugees are unfairly taking fair of the Dutch welfare system and expressed explicit wishes for the refugees to be repatriated. While these politicians claim to believe this for benign reasons, their intentions are clear. Among these politicians is the right-wing leader Geert Wilders who has often attacked Syrian refugees over Twitter and asserted that it was time for Syrians in the Netherlands to return home, to rebuild it, rather than take advantage of the welfare state.



Tactical programs


We must pay close attention to the tactics and programs adopted by European host countries and dig deep to better understand their undeclared goals. Germany, for example, has adopted a program that supports the voluntary return of refugees through paying a subsidy of €1,200 per person choosing to return. This has led many refugees, Syrian or otherwise, to register in the program to receive the stipend, especially those who have not been able to integrate into new communities or those who have only received subsidiary protection status and have lost hope in receiving citizenship. During the first quarter of last year, 8,468 refugees returned to their countries as a result of this program, including 2,332 Iraqi citizens.


The German government has allocated 40 million Euros in additional annual aid to refugees under the Start Helfe Plus program. It also created a program that pays refugees who refuse the asylum terms offered to them 800 Euros to facilitate their return.


Such programs aim to pave the way for refugees to return to their countries voluntarily, thus easing pressures on host countries and resolving their moral and humanitarian obligations towards refugees.


The dangerous outcomes of the current debates in Europe on coercing refugees to return must not be underestimated. At a time when European countries are showing their true face, we are witnessing corresponding responses from the Syrian regime to those that reject refugees. For example, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem called on Syrian refugees in neighboring countries to return home in February, asserting that the regime is ready to receive them and provide them with life’s necessities.


Racist attacks


European right-wingers present many justifications for their anti-refugee sentiments and attitudes, including certain refugee behaviors that are deemed distasteful by Europeans. However, none of their justifications are based on legal arguments or take into account human rights. Unfortunately, the positions of some Arab and Islamic countries have been more disappointing. They support Syrians in their revolution against the regime, but then use refugees as leverage. They impose on refugees harsh conditions, control their fate and movements, and deprive their children to the right to education.


Countless racist incidents have taken place in Lebanon, including cases of unimaginable violence against Syrian refugees and unspeakably cruel actions by Lebanese security forces. While in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acted as if he was a peace dove and protector of refugees until very recently, when his cabinet decided to begin recruiting refugees to fight with his army in Afrin in northern Syria. It cannot be denied that some refugees wanted to take part in military operations against Kurdish groups, but in general, it is clear that Erdoğan's Islamic regime was using Syrian refugees to achieve his nationalist ambitions.


An inhumane solution


Political circles were surprised by Jordan's increased demands for additional funds to secure the needs of the Syrian refugees, who are forced by King Abdullah’s regime to live in terrible conditions at the Za'tari refugee camp. The economic crisis and difficult living conditions in Jordan have encouraged officials to make hostile statements against those forced to flee for their lives. Among those officials was the former Royal Court Chief, Riyad Abu Karaki, whose proposal to resolving the economic crisis facing Jordan inhumanely consisted of “…loading Syrian refugees into trucks and throwing them out of the country." That is the view of the former Jordanian official; holding refugees responsible for problems not connected to them. Abu Karaki denied that that was his view, explaining that what he wrote on his personal social media account was to "…mock recent government decisions," but it was too late.


Laws prevent repatriation


The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention forbids nations from deporting anyone whose life is under threat or in danger. The Convention states that a refugee cannot be made to return if “his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” UNHCR guidelines dictate that once an individual is granted asylum, he or she cannot be forcibly returned until conditions in the original country have fundamentally and permanently changed in a way that ensures the protection of previously oppressed individuals.


However, past European experiences with such issues have not been in the best interest of refugees. For example, in the autumn of 1998, 250,000 Bosnian refugees left Germany as part of an agreement between Germany and Bosnia and Herzegovina to repatriate refugees in waves.


Politically, within the context of negotiations and various conferences between the Syrian regime and the opposition, especially the Geneva, Astana and Sochi processes, the two sides have not seriously discussed the issue of refugees returning. Perhaps this is because these negotiations have not been serious attempts to discuss the core issues. Instead, they reverberate cautious statements that disgrace the Syrian blood that was shed in the war and rehash old wrongdoing. The only mention of the refugee issue was a small paragraph in the Points of Commonalities paper of Geneva in 2016, which briefly discussed the return of refugees, affirming "the safety and shelter of displaced persons and refugees, including their right to return to their homes, shall be guaranteed."


Readying boats back


Involuntary return of Syrian refugees is illegal, as long as the country is in a deteriorating security situation and is prone to exploding at any moment, due to incohesive agreements and fragile international guarantees.


Unfortunately, given the lack of compassion of many politicians in host countries and the recent developments within these governments, things seem likely to get worse. After a bitter and harsh journey through which Syrian refugees lost their possessions and homes and travelled through areas and countries that treated them with discrimination and seas that swallowed up many of their boats, the most optimistic estimates say that 2018 might be the last year of the Syrian crisis and the features of a new state are being drawn. What is being publicly discussed in host countries tells us that these countries have begun to ready boats in preparation to forcibly sending Syrian refugees back.




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