Most of us are familiar with the images of refugees fleeing the Middle East in rubber dinghies across the Mediterranean, braving the high seas in tightly packed, flimsy vessels hoping to find safer homes for their children in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from Syria, attempted this journey over the years, climaxing in the 2015 wave that sought shelter from the myriad atrocities in their country – Bashar Al Assad's chemical weapons and barrel bombs, ISIS beheadings and crucifixions, and the hopelessness of life in a divided nation torn apart by war and the indifference of the international community.
But a vastly larger number stayed behind in countries neighbouring Syria, primarily in Turkey and Lebanon. The latter still hosts close to a million Syrian refugees officially to a pre-war population of four million. The actual number is probably a lot higher. Most live in informal settlements – essentially camps made up of flimsy tents that flood in winter and offer scarce shelter to the families crowding in them. Many children are reduced to begging in the streets or work to bring in some income to keep their families from being evicted.
Some have returned home to Syria, but stories abound of young men being drafted into the military or disappeared in the security services' many dungeons. Calls for the mass repatriation of refugees have periodically been raised in Europe, as well as in Lebanon and Turkey, which have shouldered the main burden of the flight of civilians from Syria's war zones. Humanitarian workers have repeatedly pointed out that Syria is not safe for returnees, even if the military conflict is largely frozen and Mr Al Assad has declared victory.
A new study shows just how unsafe Syria still is.
The project, conducted by Refugee Protection Watch, a coalition of NGOs working with Syrian refugees and carrying out research on protection issues and safe return, interviewed hundreds of refugees in Lebanon as well as returnees inside Syria. The study concludes that Syria is not a safe country for its citizens to go back to, based on various criteria established by the United Nations. The country does not meet the conditions for either a safe or dignified return.
First, many people worry that going back would leave them at the mercy of the regime’s security services, who may question or arrest them for opposing the government while in exile. In a publicised case last year, a man who had appeared in a documentary about torture in government prisons was reportedly detained upon returning and forcibly disappeared. Young men also face the possibility of being drafted into the military and sent to the frontlines to fight for the regime, a fate many want to avoid.
To be clear, the situation for them is not much better in a country like Lebanon, which is experiencing economic collapse and hyperinflation. The recent August explosion in Beirut exposed the rot that has been eating away at the nation for years and which impoverished the country's citizenry. In addition to unemployment and poverty, Syrian refugees have to deal with other problems, such as incidents of discrimination (one-third reported experiencing it, and a number of Lebanese politicians have frequently used xenophobia and racism to stoke resentment) and harassment at police and army checkpoints.
But neither is the economic situation much better inside Syria itself. The country's currency has collapsed, and it is facing debilitating US sanctions that have frozen Syria out of the world economy and arrested any prospect of reconstruction. Fuel and food shortages are rampant, and the corrupt power brokers who run the country will likely never compromise on political and economic reforms.
The coronavirus pandemic has worsened many of these challenges. A stunning 85 per cent of Syrians interviewed for the study said they had lost their main source of income since March. Just under 4 per cent of all respondents in Lebanon and Syria said their income had stayed the same – income fell for nearly all of them. And yet the vast majority had experienced some form of pressure to return to Syria.
Syria has retreated from the news, partly because the conflict is at a stalemate with little immediate prospect for a peace deal, and partly because the pandemic and the US election season have crowded out other important stories happening around the world.
But the pandemic does not erase our responsibility as an international community to strive for a solution to the crisis in Syria, which compels reform, justice and reconciliation, and short of that to ensure that refugees and their host communities in countries such as Lebanon live a dignified and safe life.
Neighbouring countries have shouldered the heaviest burden of the refugee crisis because Europe, the UK and the US as well as other countries in the region shirked their moral and humanitarian responsibility at a crucial inflection point in world history. Lebanon, besieged by crises and chaos, cannot survive like this indefinitely.
It is time for a renewed international effort to find a permanent solution to the Syrian refugee crisis, with little in the way of a peaceful resolution apparent on the horizon. In the short term, that will mean relief from the most destructive effects of the pandemic. In the long term, it will mean a push for a peace deal in Syria, fair resettlement policies, reform and aid in Lebanon, and a new international vision that details our responsibilities to our fellow human beings fleeing war and strife all over the globe.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National