A Deadly Welcome Awaits Syria’s Returning Refugees

Yasim, another Syrian who left Germany under similar circumstances, has also disappeared. His cousin Mohammad, still based in Germany, said Yasim could not obtain the papers required to enable his wife to join him

February 11, 2019

A Deadly Welcome Awaits Syria’s Returning Refugees
As the war in Syria dies down, the torture and mistreatment of returnees are ramping up.

 Source: Foreign Policy /  

A s the Syrian war draws to an end and the barrel bombs stop terrorizing the country, Syrians are being encouraged to return home by the countries to which they have fled. Those who do so, however, are finding the persecution that caused them to flee has not gone away. Some Syrians who have returned have disappeared into the country’s notorious prison system, a stark reminder of the dangers the country’s former refugees face.

Foreign Policy has spoken to the relatives of two such Syrians, and activists claim there are many more. Several others, meanwhile, have been rounded up and conscripted into the army.

Syria was and continues to be a police state with the same government and the same security apparatus in place, which is accused of thousands of politically motivated detentions. But governments hosting large numbers of refugees, including Lebanon and Germany, are under domestic political pressure to give incentives to refugees to go back home. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned governments against forcible returns, which would be in contravention of international law. Even as host countries comply with this instruction, however, they continue to design policies that produce similar results, to the growing alarm of both refugees and activists.

One young man, Asser, chose to go back home from Germany after he was unable to surmount the bureaucratic hurdles preventing him from having his fiancée from Syria join him. An additional incentive was the German government’s offer of a 1,200 euro grant (roughly $1,300) to help him return to Syria—and the rising anti-refugee sentiment in his new home country.

Two weeks after arriving back in Damascus, he was called in for questioning at the local intelligence branch. He phoned his family and told them he would be home soon. He has not been heard from since. His parents, who remain anonymous to protect them from regime retaliation, paid a mediator, who found out that Asser had been detained. Such go-betweens are widely used to gather information on the disappeared and imprisoned because officially no such information is made available by the government.

Asser’s cousin, still based in Germany, told FP his story, also on the condition of anonymity. “He tried several times to claim the reunion [with his fiancée], but he couldn’t,” he said. “He missed her and started to feel tired and depressed. That’s the most important reason he left.”

The German government grant Asser used to return home is part of a scheme known as Starthilfe, which loosely translates to “help to get started.” Germany has budgeted $43 million for the program, ostensibly to ease the financial pressures of people who have already decided to return home. Critics say, however, that the program is a push factor driving refugees to risk going home.

Yasim, another Syrian who left Germany under similar circumstances, has also disappeared. His cousin Mohammad, still based in Germany, said Yasim could not obtain the papers required to enable his wife to join him. All their documents had been destroyed in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee settlement in southern Damascus where they had lived, in fighting between the government and rebels.

“He left Germany and was detained near the Lebanese-Syria border. We don’t know anything about him after that,” Mohammad said, adding that without his wife Yasim had found it difficult to adjust to life in Germany, a culture alien to him. “He could not cope with it.”

No one is accusing Germany of acting illegally in Asser’s and Yasim’s cases. They both returned voluntarily. But the lingering backlash to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy toward refugees in 2015 has forced the government to pursue policies that are ultimately placing Syrian refugees in the same danger from which they had fled. The dynamic raises questions of whether governments have a duty of care toward refugees who return, beyond the letter of the law.

Thousands of Syrian citizens have simply disappeared into the regime’s prison system, with no record of their fate or whereabouts, since the start of the war, and returning refugees are especially vulnerable to such harsh treatment. Some of those now living as refugees took part in protests or are suspected of being rebels. Some have relatives who were, even if they themselves were not. The regime has also indicated that it regards the very act of leaving the country as grounds for suspicion.

Foreign Policy