Nowhere to Stay, Nowhere to Go

Exploring Solutions for Displaced Syrians from a Syrian Perspective

Date: 24 June 2020.

Voices for Displaced Syrians Forum (VDSF) held an online side event to the Brussels IV conference, which addressed the following topics:

The real nature of so-called “spontaneous” returns to Syria and a Syrian perspective for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns to places of origin in Syria

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Syrian Refugees and on Local NGOs (LNGOs)

Actions needed from the international community and host countries to prevent forced return to Syria

Panelists:

Dr. Fadi Al-HalabiFounder & General Director, MAPs

Nisreen Al-Rish, Chairman of Jana Watan Board

Layan Al-Dani, Programs Manager at Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR)

Closing Reflection and Remarks:  Kathryn Achillis, Durable Solutions Platform Manager

Moderator:  Karam Hilly, CEO of Door Beyond War organization. 

Interpretation: Saad Baroud, Member of the Steering Committee at VDSF.

Language: English

Organiser of the Webinar minutes: Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR)

Summary of the Panel discussion

The real nature of so-called “spontaneous” returns to Syria and a Syrian perspective for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns to places of origin in Syria

Looking at the current conditions in Syria, returns are based on vulnerability and not on real factors. 

The UNHCR have registered 12,600 returnees by 2020 – we understand that the current harsh conditions in the hosting countries constitute push-factors, meaning most of the returnees did not return voluntarily or spontaneously. Refugees are usually marginalized and pushed because they are already living in hard conditions such as lack of civil documentations.

There has always been a bias when dealing with refugees, they are under discrimination and hate speech leading them to flee their locations, taking into consideration that the current situation inside Syria is not suitable for return.

The dangerousness of the conflict in the place of origin of returnees is that there are different forms of violence and the returnees are being targeted. The root causes of conflict and of displacement has not changed, such as harassment from the state especially that some state leaders and party leaders have threatened the displaced Syrians from returning.

The UNHCR has not met its commitments regarding the protection of Syrian refugees which places high risk on the returnees. The Syrian civil society organisations have documented several cases related to the rights of returnees and for that we reassure and reverify for people meeting in Brussels to protect the Syrians and not be influenced by political motives. Main actors on this issue should consider that the Syrian refugee crisis is one of the biggest catastrophes since world war II, for that we insist on the conditions to ensure the safe and dignified and spontaneous returns.

The minimum factors for returns are mentioned in a strategy issued by UNHCR CPSS and this minimum threshold cannot be met in Syria; the return issue requires a series of changes inside Syria that provide unbiased access for civilians.

We call on the presidents meeting in Brussels to support a join mechanism of civil society organisations with UNHCR to pave the way to return of the place of origin of Syrian displaced. And we insist that the return should be to the place of origin as we see as any returns to other places will leave the displaced people, live as displaced within their countries.

The procedures required from the international community and host countries conducting forced returns especially during covid-19 and the loss of livelihoods and the increase of push factors and deterioration of the economic situation. The government and host communities require more understanding and participation from civil society into looking for solutions inside Syria; this should be the only ethical way to solve the Syrian issue. The international community participating in Brussels should prioritize the interest of the refugees by allowing space for the civil society. We call on the international community to participate and engage with the civil society in this process and we also call on monitoring the conditions of the returns, not only once they return, but also during their refuge.

The violations of the returns to Syria are huge, it can be described as systematic violations such as detention, forced displacement, and torture by different conflict parties.

The decision being taken by some returnees to Syria can be described as suicide. Sometimes, once returnees return, we lose contact with them, especially those returning to areas that already have history of human rights violations. We suggest the creation of mechanisms to monitor and register the violations against returnees inside Syria and host countries.

We call on high participation of the Syrian civil society. We see it is missed in the processes being conducted at the moment as the 3RP community still lacks a lot of Syrians and we call on the enhancement of these mechanisms to support the NGOs against forced returns.

Actions needed from the international community and host countries to prevent forced return to Syria – Dr. Fadi Al-Halabi

The most important issue in Lebanon is protection. The core idea of the UNHCR when it was established was to protect refugees. But now, if we ask every Syrian refugee in Lebanon if they feel protected by the UNHCR or supported by an entity in Lebanon the answer will surely be no. and this is the disaster we have in Lebanon: no protection or support to refugees, their communities or even the organisations who work with them. Syrian civil society organisations lack representation, support, and protection and most are not legal, so we have to invest more in this community. We must find a way to include and enhance participation of Syrian civil society organisations.

We cannot consider the decision of refugees to return as voluntary when the environment around them indirectly pushes them to make very dangerous and big mistakes for their lives out of desperation.

After Covid-19 we are seeing difficulties to work and during the pandemic the security forces increased the discrimination on them which further pushed away Syrians.

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Syrian Refugees and on Local NGOs (LNGOs) – Layan Al Dani

We appreciate the interactive relationships with the international community and partners although it was very late for them to realize that no decisions can be made without consulting those on the ground. 

Civil Society Organisations working with refugees directly are facing immense challenges in their work, such as security issues and pressure reflected in their prosecution for their activism with refugees which only intensified after the Arsal conflict in 2014, and the Lebanese authorities began pressuring refugees to return. We have documented multiple cases of deportation which places refugees’ lives in danger. It is important to note that ACHR is working on publishing a report regarding pressures placed on organisations working with Syrians, primarily by the Lebanese government.

The Lebanese authorities are systematically violating international laws and today, refugees are escaping the harsh conditions in Lebanon to even harsher conditions in Syria and this has been recently made clear in light of Covid-19 with thousands of Syrians getting stuck at the border while attempting to return. Their conditions and suffering have only worsened during this pandemic which might be more deadly than the virus itself. It has caused the tightening of their freedom of movement, access to livelihoods and ability to secure their basic needs especially since most of them depend on daily and seasonal work. Consequently, we have documented 31 cases – besides many collective cases – of forced evictions due to accumulated rent. We are fully aware of the need of Lebanese owners of these profits, which is why we call for increasing capacity and resources for this issue. Decisions to return when escaping such conditions cannot be at all considered “voluntary” or “dignified.”

Recommendations: 

The Lebanese government should abide by all international conventions and treaties, refrain from deportation which will risk refugees’ lives, arbitrary measures which are not contributing to anything but growing tension and stigma between Syrian refugees and the host community.

We ask the International Community to establish international guarantees by the EU or the UN – and to not include any party to the conflict in Syria – to ensure that returns are safe, voluntary and dignified to the place of origin and with the inclusion of Syrian voices to keep up with the return process.

A mechanism headed by civil society should be established to monitor the resources allocated to the Lebanon due to the Lebanese government’s lack of transparency. If this is difficult to implement, we then call for the redirection of part of these allocations to civil society organisations to directly implement the projects.

Q&A

How has UNHCR not met their commitment? 

Nisreen: They have an office in Damascus which should allow them to monitor the conditions of returnees especially in the areas of access while us, as civil society led by refugees, cannot reach some of these areas under the control of the Government of Syria so we think that UNHCR should be able to monitor the return process and the conditions that returnees are living in and any violations of human rights that can affect them especially that we are losing contact with them once they are in Syria. The threshold placed by UNHCR must be reviewed and made sure that its conditions are suitable for the conditions in Syria. We insist that UNHCR should do the process of comprehensive monitoring for the returnees and the return should be spontaneous, dignified, and safe for everyone.

How can we raise and guarantee the voices of refugees?

Fadi: We have to support the protection of refugees and activists and NGOs because in Lebanon it is so difficult to get legal requirements for Syrian bodies. We have to work in community level and invest in it to get more voices heard and ensure capacity building.

Layan: we can do so through what we are doing right now. When we as representatives of NGOs working directly with refugees are not being represented at discussion tables, it hinders the work and the advocacy. It is also the responsibility of the UN who targets coalitions and network of NGOs that are prominent and working on an international level and not grassroot level NGOs who know the issues more widely, deeply, and directly.