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As Assad’s isolation lifts, Syrian refugees fear pressure to return home

BEIRUT — Early one recent morning, Lebanese soldiers swept through the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood in Beirut, emptying two buildings of the Syrian refugees living in them. They forced them into trucks and drove them to a no-man’s land between the Lebanese and Syrian borders.

After days stuck along the border, hundreds of refugees were taken by Syrian forces back to Syria. Among them was Rasha, a 34-year-old mother of three who fled the country in 2011. The family spent their first night back in Syria sleeping on the streets of the capital, Damascus. The next day, she said, she paid a smuggler to help them cross back into Lebanon.

If the soldiers ever come back, Rasha vowed, she would die before being forced back to Syria again.

“Even if they shoot me, I won’t go back,” she said after returning to her home in Beirut where her family, especially her 12-year-old son, is living in fear that the soldiers will return. “My son keeps waking up in the middle of the night screaming, ‘Mama, they’ve come,’” said Rasha, who for security reasons asked to be identified by her first name only.

Across the Middle East, Syrian refugees like Rasha who fled by the millions during their country’s 12-year war have watched nervously as the Arab world reestablishes diplomatic relations with their country’s authoritarian leader, President Bashar Assad, after more than a decade of isolation in the Middle East and beyond.

Last month, Assad attended the annual Arab League summit for the first time in 13 years, and many countries welcoming him back into the fold have made the return of Syrian refugees a top priority.

“We are all interested in Syrian refugees being able to return safely to their homes,” the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said at the conclusion of the summit, which was hosted by his country. “We will work with the government in Damascus to make that possible.”

Despite the assurances of safe returns to Syria by countries sheltering refugees, human-rights groups have said it is not safe for them to go back.

Despite the assurances of safe returns to Syria by countries sheltering refugees, human-rights groups have said it is not safe for them to return, and some of those who have done so faced arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture and even extrajudicial executions.

More than 6 million Syrians fled during the conflict that began in 2011, most settling in neighboring states including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. For many, the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with the Syrian government holds out the terrifying prospect of losing safe havens and being forced to abandon the new lives they have painstakingly built.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned for years of the dangers of sending Syrians home, especially to areas under government control where those who fled mandatory military conscription or who have spoken out against the regime risk disappearing into a notorious prison system where torture and killings are rife.

International law prohibits returning people to a place where they would be at risk of persecution or other serious human-rights violations.

Though Arab leaders talk about safe and voluntary returns, the discussions have caused panic among some Syrian populations, said Dareen Khalifa, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group.

“It definitely doesn’t mean the voluntary and safe return,” Khalifa said. “It’s all code for sending people back in any way or making it very difficult for them to stay.”

In Lebanon, where some 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge, security forces have been conducting deportation raids for months. They have sent more than 1,700 Syrian refugees back to a country still at war and with a repressive government largely in control, according to the United Nations.

Lebanon and Turkey have deported Syrians previously. But human-rights groups say larger numbers are being deported from Lebanon now and it is more systematic.

Lebanon — a country that had a population of only about 4 million when the Syrian war began — immediately felt the strain of the influx of Syrians. In Turkey and Jordan, Syrian refugees initially received warm welcomes. But Lebanon did not set up any formal refugee camps for them and enacted restrictive labor laws that limited what jobs Syrians could do.

In April, when Rasha and her neighbors were deported, they slept for five days in an abandoned hall once used for weddings before they were taken into Syria. Dozens of men — some of them wanted for opposition to the Assad government or for evading mandatory military service — were arrested, according to Rasha, who said she witnessed the arrests.

In a recent survey of Syrian refugees conducted by the United Nations refugee agency, just 1.1% of respondents said they planned to return to Syria in the next year. Only 56% said they hoped to return to Syria someday.

In Turkey, where more than 3.3 million Syrian refugees live, sending Syrians back became a prominent issue in the recent election. In the days before the May 28 presidential runoff, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader challenging the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, put up billboards proclaiming “Syrians will go!”

Though Erdogan won reelection, the strong performance of far-right nationalists in the May presidential and parliamentary elections could push Turkish government policy toward a harder line. In his acceptance speech, Erdogan pledged that his government would ensure the voluntary return of 1 million Syrians within a year.

Ahmad, a 26-year-old Syrian living in Istanbul, said Turkish authorities sent him back to Syria in January after he was held for five months in a camp for those set to be deported. Five days later, he said, he paid a smuggler to take him back into Turkey.

When he first came to Turkey in 2021, he applied for a temporary ID card, which Turkey gives to refugees. But after going through the process, he was told Turkey was no longer issuing them.

“I am gripped by fear. If I am working in the shop and it gets late, then I will sleep at the mechanic shop rather than take the risk and walk home,” said Ahmad, who for security reasons asked to be identified only by his first name. “What if I get caught again and imprisoned and deported?”

Jordan, which has more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, has been one of the main proponents pushing for a plan to send refugees there home.

On May 1, Jordan hosted Arab foreign ministers from five states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to discuss what they would seek from Syria in return for normalizing relations with Assad. A declaration stemming from the meeting mentioned a pilot program to send back 1,000 Syrians — a way to test the waters for the return of greater numbers.

Lebanese soldiers turned up in April at the home of another Syrian refugee, Najib, and deported him, his wife and their two young children to Syria, according to his brother, Mohammed.

Najib, 31, had defected from the Syrian military in the early days of the conflict and was wanted by the government, according to his brother, who asked that both be identified by their first names only, for security reasons.

Najib was handed over to Syrian security forces and more than a month later, his family still has no definite word on his whereabouts.

Mohammed, who works as a tailor in Beirut, said he was often too afraid to leave his home lest he be deported. He now spends his time trying to track down any information about his brother.

A mediator has asked the family for $5,000 to help get his brother released and smuggled back to Lebanon, he said.

“I heard at the Arab League that there’s a plan to send us back to Syria,” he said. “But what are the guarantees? My brother is still missing. How can I guarantee I won’t face my brother’s fate?”

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