Return Is Still Unsafe: 62 Cases of Arrest/ Enforced Disappearance among Returnees from Lebanon Recorded Since the Beginning of 2020
BY: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
(Link below to download full report)
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) states in its report released today that the Syrian regime is preventing hundreds of Syrian citizens from returning from Lebanon to their homeland, noting that 62 cases of arrest/ enforced disappearance among returnees from Lebanon have been documented since the beginning of 2020.
The 12-page report notes that the violations and dangers in Syria, which expanded greatly after the popular uprising that demanded political change transformed into an internal armed conflict, led to the displacement of nearly 13 million Syrian citizens, between internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, noting that the Syrian regime is by far the most prolific perpetrator of violations, with many of these violations reaching the level of crimes against humanity, in which the regime has used many of the Syrian state institutions that it dominates and controls.
The report clarifies that the unforeseen circumstances affecting some refugees have pushed them to return, as has happened with a number of Syrian refugees following the economic repercussions that occurred in Lebanon as a result of the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020. The report stresses that despite the tragic conditions in which many Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, however, the vast majority of them still refuse to return. According to the report, the percentage of those who have returned to Syria is estimated at about 12% of the total Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which is the highest ratio among the countries from which Syrian refugees returned, while the total percentage of returnees from nations worldwide does not exceed 7%, the majority of whom returned from Lebanon, then Jordan.
The report also notes that the Syrian regime continues to deny Syrian citizens re-entry to their country unless they exchange US $ 100 or its equivalent in foreign currencies per person to do so, in accordance with the exchange rates set by the Central Bank, noting that the Syrian regime has detained/ forcibly disappeared at least 37 Syrian citizens who have returned from Lebanon since January 2020 to date.
The report relies on the SNHR’s database of detainees and forcibly disappeared persons, resulting from the continuous daily monitoring and documentation SNHR has carried out since 2011 to date concerning incidents of torture, arrest and enforced disappearance, stressing that all the information included in this report represents the bare minimum number of violations that were documented, and that the real, undocumented figures are far greater than this.
The report also relies on a number of interviews conducted with Syrians who were not allowed to enter their country, and who have remained stranded on the Lebanese-Syrian border, as well as with people who were able to return, and with the families of people who were subjected to arrest and enforced disappearance among returnees from various Syrian governorates, with the report providing five individuals’ accounts.
The report notes that on March 22, 2020, the Syrian regime issued an arbitrary decision to close the land crossings between Lebanon and Syria, monitoring hundreds of Syrian citizens, including women and children, being left to suffer at the border in overcrowded conditions for weeks in March 2020, with the same situation recurring in June 2020 to date. The report further notes that this arbitrary decision forced dozens of Syrian citizens into reentering their homeland in an irregular way through smuggling operations via the borders, posing a threat to their security and lives.
The report also provides further details on the arbitrary measures announced by the Syrian embassy in Lebanon with regard to Syrian citizens who want to return, as well as giving information about the actions of the Syrian regime officials at Syrian border crossings, who have been cramming large numbers of those who were subsequently allowed to enter the country into quarantine rooms in quarantine centers in a manner that violates the simplest precautionary procedures introduced to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report reveals that on July 8, 2020, the Syrian regime’s Prime Minister’s office issued a decision, which practically constitutes a form of state robbery by force and coercion of the funds of already impoverished citizens wishing to return to their country, violating the fundamental principles of many basic human rights, and legitimizing state looting of citizens’ funds. This decision obliges all Syrians returning to Syria to exchange 100 US dollars or its equivalent in foreign currencies accepted by the Central Bank of Syria exclusively into Syrian pounds. As the report reveals, many Syrian refugees in Lebanon had already also been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the further deterioration of their conditions in Lebanon following the horrific explosion that occurred in Beirut Port on August 4, 2020 leaving hundreds of Syrian refugees feeling they were left with no choice but to return to their homeland; the vast majority of those returning are from the most impoverished groups, who work for minimal wages on an hourly or daily basis, and do not have savings of up to 100 US dollars.
The report notes that a number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon were forced to use illegal methods to reenter their homeland in order to bypass the arbitrary obstacles put in place by the Syrian regime, which are beyond the capacity of the majority of refugees, leading to their being prosecuted by the regime’s security services, with the Syrian authorities charging them with terrorism-related charges under the pretext that they dealt or had contact with smugglers wanted by the Syrian regime. After extracting ‘confessions’ from these citizens under torture, many of them were referred by the security branches directly to the regime’s Counter-Terrorism Court.
From the beginning of 2020 until September 2020, the report notes, there have been at least 62 arrests by Syrian Regime forces, targeting citizens returning from Lebanon to their areas of residence in Syria, with the Syrian regime releasing 25 of those detained, while 37 others are still detained or forcibly disappeared in the Syrian regime’s detention centers. The report also documents that the Syrian regime re-arrested a number of those who had previously been released, forcibly conscripting them into the ranks of its military forces which commit the worst types of violations
The report stresses that the Syrian regime has imposed arbitrary obstacles that violate Syrian citizens’ right to return to their country, with the laws issued by the Syrian regime, even if it calls them decrees or laws, being in reality coercive measures based on force and authoritarianism, because they blatantly violate basic human rights principles and international human rights law. Resolution No. 46 mentioned in the report legalizes the looting of citizens’ money, attempting to legitimize this with legal language, with the report noting that this resolution is a barbaric ruling that directly contravenes Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”, with the regime’s latest arbitrary resolution also contravening Article 38 of the regime’s own current constitution.
The report also notes that the Syrian regime has violated Security Council Resolution No. 2254, particularly Article 14, as well as stressing that the Syrian regime obstructs the return of refugees by imposing barbaric arbitrary fees, arbitrary arrests, torture and enforced disappearances.
The report further notes that the Syrian regime is using the money it obtained through oppression and coercion of citizens to serve its military and security operations.
The report calls on the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and around the world, as well as the displaced inside Syria not to return to the areas controlled by the Syrian regime, which continues up to the present moment to rule over those areas with a brutal, criminal mentality that leads to the commission of various types of violations.
The report recommends that the High Commissioner for Refugees should notify refugees of the dangers of return in the absence of any change to the ruling regime in Syria, further recommending that this official should periodically alert refugees to these dangers, closely monitor the situation of refugees who have returned to Syria, and report on the violations they have suffered.
The report urges the High Commissioner for Human Rights to condemn the arbitrary decisions issued by the Syrian regime that impede the return of Syrian citizens and aim to rob them of their money, especially targeting the most impoverished amongst them, calling on the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a special report monitoring, detailing and condemning violations suffered by refugees after their return to Syria, and to expose the practices of the government and the current regime in organized looting and its normalization of such behavior with laws that legitimize these crimes.
The report calls on the Security Council and the United Nations to make real efforts to implement the political transition laid out in resolution 2254 within a strict timetable that does not exceed 12 months at the latest, thus achieving the safe, dignified and voluntary return of Syrian citizens.
The report provides a set of recommendation to the international community and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI), as well as recommending that the countries of asylum should end the racist harassment campaigns against Syrian refugees that lead them to feel forced to return, thereby risking arrest, enforced disappearance or fatal torture, and urges both to assume their responsibilities in this regard.