Stuck in limbo: How Europe can protect Syrian refugees
Europeans who have at heart the sustainable return of refugees, in line with Europe’s core interests and with the will of the Syrian people, should focus on ensuring that conditions on the ground in Syria allow for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns
This year is set to be extremely challenging for Syrian refugees. Host countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are exhausted, their resources depleted. For these states, the difficulty of hosting an increasing number of refugees is compounded by worsening domestic problems: they face a growing threat from political instability, the pandemic, economic sanctions, and poor governance. All this contributes to a rising sense of desperation that could drive more Syrian refugees out of the Middle East.
Up to nine Arab governments – including those in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as the Palestinian Authority – have either taken steps to normalise relations with Syria or have said they want it to rejoin the Arab League. Meanwhile, some European countries are considering ways to return refugees to Syria.
All these shifts are taking place outside Syria. But it remains a dangerous place. While the violence there has diminished, the country is increasingly fragmented and economically fragile – with 90 per cent of Syrians living in poverty, affected by unemployment and a deep currency crisis. No political solution is in sight. The security forces continue to use torture, and to carry out killings and arbitrary detentions, on a large scale. The government has not rebuilt housing and infrastructure destroyed by the conflict. The northeast faces an ongoing health crisis. Water scarcity and pollution have caused widespread disarray. And the threat from the Islamic State group still looms large. Covid-19, sanctions, and regional economic instability have only worsened the plight of Syrians.
Human rights groups confirm that Syria is not safe to return to. A comprehensive report published by Human Rights Watch in October 2021 documents the abuses and disappearances faced by those who returned from Lebanon and Jordan between 2017 and 2021. The Refugee Protection Watch coalition and Amnesty International came up with similar findings. These reports document at length that those refugees who return to Syria face torture, arrests, disappearance, mistreatment by the security forces and even forced conscription.
This is why the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) argues that, for most Syrians, a return home “remains a deep and longed-for aspiration”. Indeed, the situation in Syria does not allow for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns.
Despite the evidence, there are worrying signs that, in the next year, the 5.5 million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and the 1 million in Europe will come under mounting pressure to return to Syria. This pressure will come largely from political and economic factors in host countries, as well as wider dynamics in the Middle East, such as governments’ normalisation of their relationships with the Assad regime and the broader trend towards regional dialogue.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pushing for the return of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey (a higher number than there are in any other country). With elections on the horizon, he is likely to ramp up such pressure in the face of growing public resentment. One recent poll suggests that more than 70 per cent of Turkish people would vote for the party that promised the toughest action on refugees at the next election. And violence against Syrian refugees is on the rise. Turkey is likely to become an increasingly inhospitable place for Syrians fleeing conflict, given its uncertain political environment, the arrival of a growing number of Afghan refugees, and its deepening financial crisis.
For years, the Lebanese authorities have tried to coerce Syrian refugees to return home. These Syrians have been evicted from their homes, expelled from municipalities, and forced to dismantle their own shelters. Since 2019, the authorities have deported Syrian refugees they deem to have irregularly entered Lebanon. In 2020 the government approved an official return plan. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s economic and currency crisis has continued, and the public have become more frustrated with the presence of refugees, blaming them for Lebanon’s problems. Ninety per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in poverty. As the Lebanese government re-engages with Damascus, there is ever more risk that they will be forcibly deported.
Syrians might be less vulnerable to this kind of pressure in Jordan. But while the country’s official position is that Syrian refugees will not be forced to return home any time soon, the government’s shift towards normalisation of relations with the Assad regime could change this. The Jordanian intelligence services have started an intimidation campaign targeting Syrian journalists in the country. Over the years, Amman has implemented policies designed to exert pressure on Syrian refugees, such as summary deportations and the denial of access to important types of employment. In the heat of the pandemic, the Jordanian authorities forcibly transferred dozens of Syrian refugees to the desert camp of Rukban, near the Syria-Jordan border. Jordanian border guards have sometimes denied entry to Syrian refugees who have left Jordan and sought to return.
Similar dynamics are increasingly evident in Europe. To be sure, no European country is forcing refugees to return to Syria. The European Union’s official position is that it would not be safe to do so – as reflected in a resolution the European Parliament adopted in March 2021 and a report the EU published the following June.
But, last year, Denmark revoked the residence permits of some Syrians, and detained those who refused to return to their home country voluntarily. A few days ago, the UK Home Office rejected an application for asylum from a 25-year-old Syrian on the basis that it did not believe he would face the “risk of serious harm” in Syria (though it has since reversed its position). In the cases of both Denmark and the United Kingdom, decisions to revoke or refuse asylum to Syrian people appear to have more to do with domestic politics than the situation in Syria.
Several European governments have argued that it is time to classify Syria as a safe country and normalise relations with Damascus. For instance, after a right-wing government took office in Italy in 2018, the country seemed alarmingly close to normalising its relationship with Syria – as part of an effort to implement policies on refugee returns and curbs on migration. In August 2018, Poland’s then-deputy foreign minister, Andrzej Papierz, visited Damascus to discuss refugee returns. In April 2019, Hungary granted residency status to a Syrian man who faced US sanctions for assisting the Assad regime. The Czech Republic has maintained a certain degree of engagement with Syria. As with Denmark and the UK, these developments are driven by domestic politics.
All these incidents send the dangerous message that it is legitimate to pressure Syrian refugees to leave. Many experts believe that some European countries that host these refugees will soon try to argue that Syria is a safe country.
Nonetheless, most European states maintain that the war in Syria is not over and conditions there preclude refugee returns. These states need to do more to push back against growing hostility towards refugees before it is too late. Given that most Syrian refugees are not inclined to return to Syria any time soon, and that the deterioration of their living conditions does not seem to change their views on this, it is likely that a growing number of them in places such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan will try to travel to Europe.
Europeans who have at heart the sustainable return of refugees, in line with Europe’s core interests and with the will of the Syrian people, should focus on ensuring that conditions in Syria allow for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns. They should also increase their economic and other support for host countries in the Middle East, to discourage them from engaging in forced returns. European states that are hinting at returns should recognise the danger to refugees and reverse course.
A discussion of the substantive requirements for refugee returns, including on processes and scale, could also support European countries’ Syria policies more broadly. In this, European leaders should reiterate the importance of UNHCR’s protection thresholds and of maintaining and even expanding humanitarian access to Syria. They should also try to generate diplomatic pressure for a multilateral commitment to a transparent UNHCR monitoring mechanism in the country. And they should ensure that the refugee issue is central to their diplomacy with states that are normalising their relationships with the Assad regime, such as Jordan, while also ensuring that Moscow – which is pushing for the return of Syrian refugees based on the idea that the war is over – knows that European states will only return refugees once it is safe to do so.
The containment of migration is a key priority for many European countries. And Arab states’ normalisation of their relationships with the Assad regime will not heal Syria’s economic wounds by itself. Nor will it restore the legitimacy of the Assad regime. Europe has some leverage over Damascus through its capacity to provide financial support for reconstruction and legitimacy via public recognition. It is important that it uses this leverage in conversations about the return of Syrian refugees, particularly in a year in which they are likely to come under greater pressure than ever.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.