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PoliticsMiddle East

Syria: Refugees return to 'square one' at best

July 6, 2024

Despite increased crackdowns on Syrian refugees in countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, most Syrians don't want to go back — both for safety and economic reasons.

Syrian refugees are seen at the refugee camp in Idlib
For male refugees, returning to Syria usually means ending up in the army or in prisonImage: Muhammed Said/AA/picture alliance

When Turkish security forces detained Abdul Qader Basmaji in March this year, there was no way the Syrian refugee could still have made it to an ATM in Istanbul to withdraw his savings before he was taken to a deportation center.

A few days later, the 25-year-old arrived at the border between Turkey and Syria's northwestern region of Idlib.

Basmaji laughs bitterly when asked if he was compensated for losing his job, flat, friends and savings. "Nobody reimbursed me," he told DW in Idlib city, adding that at least the Turkish authorities hadn't requested he cover the deportation costs himself.

Basmaji would try and return to his life as refugee in Istanbul any moment if only he had enough money to get back.

But 10 years since fleeing from his home town Aleppo after protesting against Syrian President Bashar Assad, he finds himself back in Syria with no more than what he had in his pocket on the day he was detained.

"With a severe economic crisis, sanctions, lack of reconstruction, limited access to basic services and job opportunities, returning to Syria often means returning to square one," explained Nanar Hawach, senior analyst for Syria at the International Crisis Group, an independent organization working on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflicts.

A Syrian refugee inside his tent with an oven
Soon, the mandatory conscription into the army could end, analysts say. Image: picture alliance / Anadolu

Turkish deportations

Following the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011, some 3.6 million Syrians fled to Turkey.

But not all of them stayed and human rights groups have recently been observing an increase in forced returns. 

Since January 2023, more than 57,000 Syrians have been deported to the region of Idlib, which is Syria's last stronghold of militias and the opposition.

The region has also become known for its dire economic and humanitarian circumstances which further intensified after the deadly earthquake in February 2023.

Given the soaring unemployment rate in the region, Basmaji has been unable to find a steady job and currently works odd jobs in construction. "It's not enough to make ends meet," he tells DW.

He is also not able to join his family in Aleppo, as the city has long been recaptured by Syrian forces.

"At best, they will force me into the army where I get killed or have to kill other Syrians, at worst I will vanish and die in prison," he says bluntly.

In Syria, men under the age of 42 have to serve in the army for an undetermined period of time.

"Conscription does not only mean that the lives of the men are in danger, it also impacts entire families financially as they are exposed to the financial burden of having a conscripted family member whose salary does not cover his basic food items," Hawach said.

"There are though currently talks in Damascus aimed at alleviating returnees' concerns regarding conscription and security issues," Crisis Group's Hawach told DW.

Yet there are also other aspects that are likely to continue curbing the numbers of male returnees. 

While many Syrians lost their properties during the war due to destruction, confiscation and a lack of documentation, returnees are especially vulnerable, Hawach said.

"Financial support for returnees is close to non-existent," he added.

The UN Refugee Agency has repeatedly said that Syria is not yet safe enough.

Also, the Syrian Network for Human Rights says that thousands of voluntary and non-voluntary returnees have been arrested after their return from Turkey and Lebanon.

Trucks carrying Syrian refugees and their belongings prepare to leave Lebanon back to Syria
The Lebanese government agrees the names of Syrian refugees with the Assad regime before driving them to the borderImage: AFP

Lebanese deportations

The situation in Lebanon is different as the country shares almost 400 km (245 miles) of border with Syrian areas under the control of Assad.

"The Lebanese General Security funds return trips to the border after they agreed on the returnees' names with the Assad regime," Muhsen AlMustafa, who researches security and military in Syria at the Istanbul-based think tank Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told DW.

Yet despite the fact that Lebanese authorities have repeatedly said that the return of Syrian refugees was completely voluntary, the Beirut-based human rights organization Access Center for Human Rights has documented763 cases of forced deportation to Syria in 2023, and a further 433 between January and May 2024.

One of them was that of 27-year-old Trad who was detained for not having an official residence permit. "The authorities demanded a bail of 750 million Lebanese pounds ($8,500/€7,927) to release him," his 63-year-old father, Mamdouh, told DW in Beirut.

However, after he paid the money and came to pick up his son, the authorities informed him that Trad had been already deported to Syria.

"Since then, he has completely disappeared," the worried father told DW.

His hopes are now on international rights organizations and the UN. Both have long been calling on governments such as Turkey and Lebanon to ensure that funding does not go towards rights violations and that the conflict in Syria should still be resolved with a political solution.

Syrians in Lebanon face mounting hostility

DW's Rola Farhat contributed from Lebanon to this report. 

Edited by: Andreas Illmer 

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.