Syrian government agents tortured, raped and killed refugees who returned home, a report from Amnesty International has found.
Activists and human rights defenders fear that Syrians who are made to return will suffer the same fate, as some host countries are pressuring refugees to go home.
Denmark regards regime-held areas as safe to return to, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly urged Syrians to go home since 2019.
“The very fact of having fled Syria is enough to put returnees at risk of being targeted by authorities,” said Marie Forestier, a researcher on refugee and migrants' rights at Amnesty.
The report, You’re Going to your Death, documents human rights violations against 66 Syrian refugees, including 13 children.
'They returned, most voluntarily, from countries including Lebanon, Jordan, France, Germany, Turkey and the UAE, and the informal settlement of Rukban in Syria, which is not under government control, between 2017 and 2021.
Five of them died in custody while 17 were forcibly made to disappear, Amnesty International found.
“Any government claiming Syria is now safe is wilfully ignoring the horrific reality on the ground, leaving refugees once again fearing for their lives,” Ms Le Forestier said.
The Syrian regime has regained control over much of the country after 10 years of civil war that has left more than half a million people dead.
Half of the Syrian population is internally displaced, while 6.7 million have sought refuge abroad, UN data shows.
The report includes accounts of people who have returned, and their families, using fake names to protect their identities.
One called Karim told Amnesty he was detained for six and a half months after returning to his village from Lebanon.
"People in Lebanon told me not to go back, telling me: ‘You’re going to your death.’ I didn’t believe them because Syria is my country,” he told Amnesty.
He was tortured so severely that he is now physically disabled. The nerves of his right hand and some of the discs in his back have been damaged.
Twenty-four women, men and even children told Amnesty they were sexually assaulted and tortured after returning home
Yasmine, a refugee living in Lebanon, said that when she returned home with her teenage son and 3-year-old daughter, Syrian officers arrested them at the border and interrogated them for 29 hours.
Officers raped her and her son, she told Amnesty.
“This is to welcome you to your country,” the officer told her. “If you get out of Syria again and come back again, we will welcome you in a bigger way.”
When UAE resident Sema returned to Damascus to see her ill father, security agents arrested, beat and sexually assaulted her.
They demanded $50,000 for the release of her husband, who was imprisoned nine years ago, then two days into her arrest demanded that sum for her release.
Security agents detained 27 Syrian refugees out of the 66 to extort money from them or their relatives, Amnesty says.
On average, families paid between 3 million and 5 million Syrian pounds – officially between $2,385 and $3,975 – for their release.
Syrian agents detained babies less than one month old along with their mothers, the report found. Women are as likely to be arrested on return as men, Amnesty said.
It urged countries hosting Syrians to grant them refugee status and protect them from being returned.
Syrians face deportation
Despite relative security in regime-held areas, Syria is not safe for return and remains a country at war, rights groups have said.
The government in July launched an offensive on the rebel-held province of Deraa in the south, forcing tens of thousands to flee, according to the UN.
Six Syrian nationals, five of whom are former rebel fighters from Deraa, face deportation in Lebanon after crossing into the country illegally last month.
Lawyer Mohamed Sablouh previously told The National that returning them to the hands of the government was akin to a death sentence.
“Amnesty's report is no surprise, this is how the regime has always operated,” Mr Sablouh said. “We have evidence, we’ve seen pictures, its operatives have even been tried in court.”
A German court in February sentenced a former Syrian government official to four and a half years in prison for the torture of protesters and human rights violations.
Syria has been under US sanctions for human rights violations by the regime since last year, after a prison photographer leaked thousands of images of torture victims and murdered prisoners.
The sanctions law was named the Caesar Act after him.
“I am doing all that I can, otherwise how can I sleep at night knowing these men could die under torture?” he asked.
Mr Sablouh says he has been desperately trying to help the six Syrian men since last week.
He pleaded with Lebanese authorities in a video last week not to return them to Syria and filed a request to repeal the decision to have them deported.
“The case could set a precedent for arbitrary deportations of Syrians from Lebanon.”