Bashar Al Assad has a message for the millions who fled their homeland over eight years of war in Syria, many of them displaced by the brutalities of his campaign to remain as president: come back home.
“Syria is in need of all its sons and we call on refugees to return to take part in the process of reconstruction,” he said in a speech last week, that was punctuated by the applause of assembled leaders of local councils around the country. With those words, he declared Syria ready to welcome home the displaced.
Mr Al Assad’s declaration will no doubt delight influential anti-migrant populist movements in Europe, which have campaigned to send back refugees who fled war, as well as Syria’s neighbours such as Turkey, which have already begun a process of forced repatriation amid struggles to provide for millions of displaced Syrians.
Now that Syria’s president has declared the country ready to welcome back the refugees, the impulse will be to accelerate the process. But Syria's neighbours and Europe must resist the urge to send Syrians back. It would be a moral betrayal of the most basic sense of decency to send war refugees back to their tormentors, subjecting them to the arbitrariness of Syria’s justice system and the whims of its totalitarian security agencies.
But it would also plunge those returning into a vicious cycle of need and poverty, further straining a nation that is unable to provide for its citizens and fuelling instability that could lead to further conflict.
About half of Syria's pre-war population of 20 million was displaced in the course of the war. Most were internally displaced, often fleeing to other parts of the country numerous times as the battlefront shifted. More than three million fled north to Turkey, more than one million to Lebanon and 600,000 to Jordan. Hundreds of thousands travelled by land and sea to Europe during 2015, settling mostly in Germany but taking up residence all over the continent.
But over the past few years, a confluence of events has contributed to the return of a number of Syrian refugees. The UN estimates 77,000 returned in 2017 alone.
One of the primary factors is that on the military front, the Assad regime has all but won. Backed by Russia and Iran, it clawed back territory all over the country, confining a rebellion that once overran large parts of the country to the province of Idlib. Many of the areas the regime reclaimed were pacified after violent campaigns, followed by “reconciliation” deals backed by Moscow, which allowed many civilians to remain in their part of the country but with the risk of retribution. As it marched towards victory, the regime called on Syrians abroad to return as well.
Then there is the fact that Turkey, in fighting ISIS and Kurdish forces on its border with Syria in the Euphrates Shield operation, has taken control of large tracts of Syria's north, an area that has come to be known as a safe zone. Some Syrians who had taken refuge in Turkey have been forcibly deported to this region. Turkey's interior minister said in December that nearly 300,000 refugees had gone home.
The other development has been the growing anti-migrant sentiment – not just in Europe, where it manifested in the rise of the far right, but also in neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Turkey, where politicians have increasingly taken a hard line calling for the return of refugees.
None of the operations to repatriate refugees that have taken place over the past couple of years have adhered to international standards. When Lebanon arranged for the return of hundreds of refugees last year and earlier this year, the UN High Commission for Refugees said it did not control the process, nor was Syria considered safe. Lebanese officials said several returnees have been killed by the regime.
Human rights workers have catalogued dozens of cases of people who were detained or interrogated when they returned or after deciding to stay in reconciliation areas. There is no evidence at the moment that the Syrian regime is systematically pursuing refugees who return, or a specific subset within them – rather that they are subject to the whims and discretion of the security services, which continue to operate with impunity. This means returnees do not have access to due process if they are deemed a threat and their reconciliation is rendered void.
Those who return are coming home to poverty, desperation and dispossession. The government has repurposed land that once belonged to individuals in opposition communities through measures like Law 10, whose stipulations limited the ability of refugees to retain ownership of their lands.
But beyond that, Syria is amid economic crises that are exacerbated by western sanctions, which have so far blocked serious reconstruction aid from coming in. Two-thirds of Syrians are living in extreme poverty today, according to the World Bank, and the country is in the midst of a gas crisis that lasted through the winter, a phenomenon that saw little coverage because of the western media preoccupation with the latest developments in the campaign to dislodge ISIS from its last strip of land in Syria.
Forcing refugees to return will likely lead to the detention and forced disappearance of those perceived to be a threat or deserving of punishment. But it will also add to the misery of those who’ve been dispossessed so often. It is a bleak portent of what is still to come.