The Syrian government and affiliated militias tortured, killed and kidnapped Syrian refugees who returned home willingly from Lebanon and Jordan, a Human Rights Watch report has found.
Refugees who attempted to return faced death and torture in regime-held areas, where most of the fighting has stopped after 10 years of war.
Shadi, a 31-year-old disabled man who returned home in 2020, said Syrian soldiers arrested and tortured him on his way from Jordan to a Syrian hospital.
“Two officers kicked me and used my crutch to beat me. They forced me to crawl on the floor to their car and arrested me,” he said.
Shadi said the officers electrocuted him, then dumped him on the side of the road after his interrogation.
The findings indicate that Syria is not safe for refugees because of government human rights abuses, HRW said, even as the UN and some host countries have encouraged returns.
The head of the UN High Commission for Human Rights Filippo Grandi, during his visit to regime-held Syria on Monday, said that he had discussed “ways to strengthen co-ordination” with the Syrian government to remove obstacles for refugees to return.
The HRW report, titled “Our Lives Are Like Death,” questioned 65 Syrians about their journey back home between 2017 and 2021. It found that Syrian government agents had arbitrarily arrested 21 people, “disappeared” 17 more, and tortured 13 people.
Government agents or affiliated militias killed five of the 65 interviewees, kidnapped three of them and the report found one case of alleged sexual violence.
The Syrian government has regained control of most of the country’s territory after 10 years of war that left half a million people dead.
People affiliated with President Bashar Al Assad’s regime face sanctions for human rights violations by the regime since Washington enforced the Caesar Act last year.
The sanctions law — officially the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act — was named after a prison photographer who leaked thousands of images of torture victims and murdered prisoners.
“No one will be safe in Syria until they stop the security agencies from terrorising people,” 38-year-old returnee Halim said.
The new findings are in line with reports from other human rights groups including Amnesty International, which warned about abuses to returnees last month.
Targeting of returnees in Deraa
Interviewees from the province of Deraa said that former rebel fighters and activists returning there face targeted killings and harassment by unknown assailants they say are linked to the Syrian regime.
Deraa is one of the last rebel-held bastions in Syria. The province fell to regime forces last month.
Suad from Deraa said her son was killed by unknown gunmen on a motorcycle upon his return from Jordan in 2020. She said he was murdered because he had worked with the Free Syrian Army for two months in 2013, before fleeing to Jordan.
“After the funeral, our neighbour came to our house and told me it was Military Intelligence and it wasn’t just my son, but a lot of men with the FSA were killed by the Military Intelligence,” she said.
Refugees in Lebanon have gone back home on trips facilitated by local authorities or Iran-backed Hezbollah since at least 2017.
Lebanon’s General Security began facilitating voluntary returns to Syria in 2018 and providing refugees with clearance documents to go home, in co-ordination with Syrian authorities.
But the documents do not always guarantee a safe return for refugees.
A Syrian lawyer told HRW that he believed General Security and Syrian security agencies “behave the same way” and cannot be trusted.
Yasser from Homs said Syrian security forces arrested him and tortured him for four months upon his return, despite his security clearance.
“I had been promised by the Lebanese GSO that no one would be harmed when returning,” the 32 year old said.
“They said the security clearance had been done, so it would be safe for me on return.”
The Lebanese government asked the UN to stop registering Syrians as refugees in 2015, and authorities have encouraged returns for years.
Some Syrians returned from Lebanon following an agreement between Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally the Syrian regime in 2017.
Zubeida, 20, returned as part of this deal. She said Syria’s elite fourth-armoured division kidnapped her husband two months after their return and she has not heard from him since.
“For months, we tried to find out about my husband. After nine months or maybe one year, we heard he was in Saydnaya prison, but we aren’t sure,” she said.
Returnees said that a lack of job opportunities, poverty and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic were the main reasons for returning home despite the poor security conditions and Syria’s economic collapse.
At least 282,283 Syrian refugees returned from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey between 2016 and May 2021.
Ten years of conflict have forced more than 13 million Syrians into displacement. About 6.7 million are displaced inside the country while 5.5 million people sought refuge abroad, according to the UN.