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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Syrians' Right of Return


James Denselow

Wed, 09 May 2018 07:46 GMT

Pity the Syrian refugees. At a recent major pledging conference in Brussels $4.4bn was pledged towards the humanitarian needs of over 5 million refugees from Syria, many of whom have been displaced for over five years. Yet the calculated needs run to up to $8bn, a reminder of donor fatigue and growing disinterest in this protracted conflict.

The absence of US pledges from the Trump administration was explained away as a bureaucratic delay, but the 'review' of Syria funding has already been frozen at $200m including support for the much feted Civil Defence force 'The White Helmets'. 

The fall of Eastern Ghouta and the 'liberation', as the regime describes it, of other territory in and around Damascus has further strengthened the narrative of a conflict that's heading towards an inevitable conclusion. 

Where does this leave Syria's refugees?

The Palestinian exodus of 1948 saw the displacement of some 750,000 people in what is remembered as the 'Nakba'. The displacement of five million Syrians outside the country, in addition to over seven million internally displaced, is on a vastly different scale. The hospitality of the neighbouring states - particularly Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan - has been remarkable. Yet there is a growing demand amongst the host population for the refugees to return. 

Incidents of anti-Syrian racism, attacks on informal refugee camps, organised and what look like forced returns to Syria of refugees are all symptoms of this increased animosity towards them. The fact that Europe and America have effectively closed their borders to large scale resettlement has only gone to further reduce the options for this vulnerable population. 

Indeed those Syrians who fled the country will have been extremely conscious of what it means to become a refugee. Syria has a long-standing history of hosting refugees fleeing conflicts - whether it be the Armenians, the Kurds, the Palestinians or in recent times the Iraqis and the Lebanese. To be a refugee is to suffer a massive reduction in your personal ability to determine the course of life for you and your family.

Access to jobs, education, benefits, civil liberties and protection are all limited and with humanitarian agencies having to reduce their programmes with donors reducing their support, more and more Syrian refugees are plunging into abject poverty. 

So why don't they return?

The vast majority of Syrian refugees did not leave on a whim. Often the stories of the final flight across borders was triggered by their house coming under attack or the death of relatives. Young men in particular would also flee to avoid conscription into military service and fear of being fed into the meat grinder of a conflict that has claimed the lives of so many.

To go back to Regime controlled territory presents a myriad of risks - of conscription, of potential detention for those who joined the original protests and disappearance into Syria's infamous prisons. 

But the balance of choice has been made even more difficult by the government in Damascus recently passing Law Number 10. Hidden behind the headlines of chemical weapons and bloodshed, this law is setting the horizon for what the future of Syria looks like, and more importantly which Syrians will be allowed to be part of it.

It represents a massive change to the government land registry and gives Syrian refugees and those who are internally displaced until 11 May to prove ownership of their property. If they don't present at local council offices inside the country the state has the power to liquidate their titles, seize their holdings and sell them at auction.  

The exclusion of over half the population from their assets is a move of seismic proportions. In the absence of credible and effective peace processes the world's ultimate arbiter of peace and society, the UN Security Council, must take urgent steps to protect the Syrian right of return. 

Otherwise Assad is condemning half the country to a lifetime of dependence on humanitarian assistance or risking everything by returning to his areas of control, something that very few refugees have done to date. All talk of reconstruction deals and processes should also account for this theft of the assets and rights of so many Syrians. 

Since the beginning of the seven year conflict Syrian refugees have not been as vulnerable as they are now, both in the short and medium term. If the world is to show that it has a stake in the future of Syria then it must take urgent action to protect the right of return of Syrian refugees. 

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