US human rights official says Syrian refugees still face peril if they return home

Washington has been cool towards Arab moves to accommodate President Bashar Al Assad

A camp for displaced persons erected after the February 6 earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey. AFP
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A lack of safety and other “immense difficulties” prevent Syrian refugees from returning to their homeland, a US official said on Tuesday, as Arab countries renew a push to accommodate the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

“It is very important to recognise the dangers and the immense difficulties preventing Syrians from having the ability to return to their homes safely,” Uzra Zeya, US under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, told reporters after meeting UN officials in Amman.

“Our position is in line with international humanitarian principles against the forcible return of refugees to an environment where they face danger or peril.”

She was the first US official comment on the issue since an earthquake in Turkey and Syria on February 6 gave impetus to a drive by Jordan and other Arab countries to bring Damascus in from the diplomatic cold.

Several million Syrians, mostly members of the country's majority Sunni population, have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey since the 2011 revolt against five decades of Assad family rule. The initially peaceful movement became militarised by the end of the year in response to the use of deadly force by government security forces.

Syria, which has been dominated by an Alawite ruling elite since a 1963 coup, was thrust into civil war.

In the past few years, Turkey and Lebanon have put pressure on the refugees to return, as Ankara and several Arab countries sought to improve ties with Mr Al Assad in the face of tacit opposition from Washington.

Jordan, however, has largely stayed away from applying pressure on the refugees.

Ms Zeya said Jordan is still providing refugees with “safety and dignity” and praised authorities for the “generosity and protection” shown towards the Syrian diaspora in the kingdom.

Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, show that 52,000 Syrians returned to the country last year, compared with 35,800 in 2021 and 38,200 in 2020.

The US is the largest donor to UNHCR operations worldwide. Washington has also spent more money than any other country on aid to Syrian refugees.

A significant proportion of the returnees, however, went to areas outside the control of the regime in northern Syria, which fall under a Turkish sphere of influence.

Dominik Bartsch, the UNHCR's representative to Jordan, said the situation inside Syria “is not considered conducive for return”, at least for the next year, and that unspecified “important criteria” have not been met.

“It is also important to recognise that refugees themselves voice great hesitation about the current context in Syria,” he said.

Updated: March 06, 2023, 2:51 PM