Activists accuse Syrian government of arresting returnees

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 700 have been detained since last month, and over 200 remain in custody

A Syrian man carries a luggage as refugees prepare to leave the Lebanese capital Beirut to return to their homes in Syria on September 9, 2018. - A group of Syrian refugees left the Lebanese capital for their homeland on September 9 as part of an organised operation coordinated between Lebanese and Syrian authorities. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
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Activist-run monitoring groups are accusing the Syrian government of arresting hundreds of refugees and internally displaced Syrians who have returned to government-held territory.

The Syrian government has been calling on refugees to return arguing that the conditions are now safe after a string of government victories secured President Bashar Assad’s control over more than sixty percent of the country.

The Russian military on Friday said nearly 270,000 Syrian refugees have returned home in recent months- a small portion of the 5.6 million Syrians who are believed to have fled abroad to escape the conflict.

Many are returning from neighbouring Lebanon, which has spearheaded the repatriation of Syrian refugees. Lebanese security agencies estimate that around 80,000 Syrians have returned since July.

The reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria in October has prompted the Syrian government to double-down on calls for the millions of refugees there to return home.

UN agencies and rights groups, however, say that repatriation may be premature, especially since they cannot guarantee that returns are being done in a voluntary and safe manner. Many fear refugees would face persecution returning to government-controlled areas in the absence of a comprehensive political agreement.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Friday said that more than 700 repatriates have been arrested since October, after returning to government-held parts of the country. It said that the returnees were mostly from Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries in the region.

Off the 700, only 230 remain detained, the monitoring group said, explaining that most had been released after brief detention.

The reason behind their arrest was not immediately clear, but the Syrian government has been known to detain people on charges of assisting or supporting rebel groups. Relatives of rebel sympathizers have also been detained in the past as a pressure tactic.


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Lebanon’s minister of refugee affairs confirmed to the National on Sunday that his office has received reports of Syrians being detained after returning to government-held parts of Syria from Lebanon, but said that he could not detail how many.

The National also tried to contact The Refugee Affairs Directorate at Jordan’s interior ministry, but they were not available for comment.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a separate activist-run monitoring group, corroborated reports by the SOHR in the latest instalment of its monthly reports on arbitrary detention in Syria.

The SNHR said it documented a total of 488 arbitrary arrests carried out by warring parties in Syria during the month of October. Syrian government forces were responsible for more than 60 percent of arrests, the monitoring group said.

Those who were arrested, included internally displaced civilians who returned from northern Syria to government-held regions after accepting so-called reconciliation deals, the SNHR said. Additionally, “Syrian regime forces launched a sweeping arrest campaign against individuals who had returned from neighbouring countries."

The SNHR did not provide specific figures.

In recent months, Damascus has taken measures to encourage returns. Earlier in October, President  Assad signed a decree granting amnesty to all those who accused of desertion, failure to follow conscription notices or failure to follow orders during the war, on the condition they report to authorities within four to six months.

Earlier this month, the Syrian military issued a new circular discharging individuals called up for reservist military service and dropping penalties against those who dodged extra military duty. An estimated 800,000 men, both inside and outside Syria, are expected to be covered by the decision.