In this final piece of the series, we provide solution-oriented recommendations to address some of the challenges facing Syrian refugees in neighboring host countries as well as those inside Syria. The displacement of over 5.6 million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, nearly half of whom are children, has placed significant economic and social pressures on host countries, which continue to be exacerbated by poor policy planning and by the bureaucratic and political barriers to the integration of Syrian refugees in each respective context. As COVID-19 priorities continue to place strain on funds dedicated to international support for refugees and on host countries’ economy, there is growing concern that refugees will be forced to return home due to lack of access to food, education, employment, and increased discrimination and subjugation to restrictive policies under the auspices of COVID-19 response and prevention. This must be prevented at all costs.
Current conditions in Syria make safe, voluntary, and dignified returns challenging for many and impossible for some. Although many Syrians may theoretically want to return to their homes, the lack of a physical home to return to along with a mismanaged economy, possible political retaliation, and the absence of essential health infrastructure make returns a dangerous prospect. Conditions for legal return amenable to international refugee law, mainly protection from retribution or political persecution, continue to be violated by the Syrian regime. In addition to stipulations put forth by the United Nations (UN), there is a need for a comprehensive political solution in Syria, explicitly framed around ongoing arrests, lack of respect for signed reconciliation agreements, forced military conscription for both people who are perceived dissidents of the Syrian regime as well as those who are not. In addition, there is a necessary need for accountability enforced by third parties to ensure the safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation of Syrian citizens and guarantee their rights upon arrival.
This analysis provides the following recommendations to parties facilitating or overseeing refugee return.
To host governments:
- Sign or ratify the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which impacts the ability of UNHCR to operate within host countries and ensures refugee protection and non-refoulement. This is particularly relevant for Jordan and Lebanon, who are not signatories to the 1951 Convention and for Turkey, which is a signatory to the 1951 Convention, but does not guarantee protection for non-European refugees.
- Facilitate access to asylum procedures for Syrian refugees, including by amending or introducing relevant legislation.
- Fulfill commitments made during the Brussels Conference to guarantee refugee rights, including residency status, education, legal protection, and non-refoulement.
- Prohibit individual or mass evictions of Syrian refugees from homes without due notice or alternative solutions by introducing legislation to ensure lawful and transparent eviction processes, minimum use of force, and with opportunities for legal compensation or alternative accommodations.
- Develop, facilitate, and improve the policies through which refugees can realize their rights to health, employment, education, and movement, including but not limited to simpler paperwork and bureaucratic processes.
- Condemn discriminatory rhetoric regarding Syrian refugees by politicians, policymakers, and national officials which disincentivizes long-term stays.
- Reduce discriminatory COVID-19 restrictions on refugee communities, including by amending relevant regulations.
- Provide baseline access to COVID-19 related healthcare as well as short- and long-term employment opportunities.
- Ensure official registration for Syrian refugees through UNHCR and other multilateral agencies in order to prevent unofficial or informal return or exploitation by smugglers.
- For those who wish to return, prioritize the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of Syrian refugees to Syria, in line with international law and protection standards.
To international organizations, including non-profit, humanitarian, and/or human rights organizations, as well as their donors:
- Petition host country governments to stop all forced deportations of Syrian refugees from host countries.
- Advocate for the release of arbitrarily-detained Syrian prisoners, including refugees who have been detained upon arrival to Syria.
- Engage civil society representatives in Syria and in the region, with a special emphasis on Syrian women and youth, regarding matters concerning Syrian refugees and policy toward Syria.
- Call on donors to sustain support for humanitarian aid and strengthen national systems and response capacities to serve refugee populations.
- Maintain the provision of humanitarian aid and access to services, including protection and livelihoods, for Syrian refugees in host countries.
- Scale-up financial support to cross-sector services for particularly vulnerable groups within the Syrian refugee population.
To the UN:
- Fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254 for a comprehensive and sustainable political solution to the conflict in Syria.
- Remind all parties involved to uphold obligations under international law and maintain commitments to nationwide ceasefire in Syria made by the UN Special Envoy as a part of addressing underlying causes of ongoing displacement inside Syria.
- Condemn forced deportations conducted by host countries host to Syrian refugees, including those who are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention (Turkey).
- Call for the protection of returnees from arbitrary arrests or detention, political persecution, or forced military conscription.
- Report regularly the state of refugees in host countries and state of returning Syrians in Syria.
While many considerations beyond these points also need to be taken, these recommendations recognize the importance of diverse solutions by diverse actors. Looking forward, solutions should be sustainable and durable and take into account logistical challenges imposed by COVID-19, growing socioeconomic challenges in the region, as well as future global emergencies—such as climate change, which has already and will continue to lead to increased displacement around the world. In 2021, we will see additional challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as concerns related to the equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine for vulnerable populations, increased rates of unemployment and poverty (and subsequent pressures) in countries host to Syrian refugees, and ongoing conflict inside Syria. As such, the issue of refugee return will continue to be at the top of policymaking agenda and should be prioritized by regional and global actors supporting the Syrian refugee population.
This is the third of three parts of On the Return of Syrian Refugees.