2018 – The year of repatriation?
International aid groups are warning that 2018 could see thousands of refugees in the Middle East and the West again forced to return to their war-torn countries before the security situation is stabilised.
They say Syrians and Afghans are particularly at risk.
A new report produced by a global alliance of relief groups highlights the dangers Syrian war refugees will face if they’re forcibly returned to a country still engulfed by vicious fighting.
“Hundreds of thousands of refugees are at risk of being pushed to return to Syria in 2018, despite ongoing violence, bombing and shelling that are endangering the lives of civilians,” says the report, titled ‘Dangerous Ground’.
“Return would neither be safe nor voluntary for the vast majority who fled the war and the violence. Currently, even in certain so-called de-escalation areas, we’ve seen bloodshed, targeting of hospitals and schools, and death,” the report said
The United Nations say at least 300,000 Syrians, displaced earlier, have again fled fighting in the past few weeks in the northwest of the country, which has come under heavy air assault from Russian and Syrian warplanes.
The number of Syrian refugees who returned to their home country rose to 721,000 in 2017, from 560,000 the previous year, estimate the agencies. But the report warns that a further 1.5 million Syrians are expected to be displaced this year.
In countries bordering Syria, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, rhetoric on refugee return has picked up. “In Syria’s neighboring countries, the push to return refugees has manifested itself in closed borders, deportations and forced or involuntary returns,” the report said.
More governments, many pushed by raising populist anger against migrants and widespread public fear of being swamped by foreigners, are planning repatriations, not just of Syrians but also those who have fled from other war-wrecked countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
Israel is already planning to remove an estimated 20,000 migrants from Sudan and Eritrea, and in Italy parties in a powerful right-wing bloc are campaigning for more than a 100,000 migrants to be repatriated in the next 12 months.
2015 was a high-water mark of a migration crisis, with around a million people seeking refuge in Europe but the aid agencies’ report says 2018 could become the year of repatriation.
“Return and repatriation of refugees and migrants is high on the European political agenda,” the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, warned in its latest bulletin on the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.
Since signing up to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention European countries have not engaged in mass forcible repatriation of war refugees, but there have been increasing incidents of Afghan asylum-seekers being returned. The Afghans are not considered war refugees by the EU.
The UN refoulement convention says that a refugee may not be returned if they fear their “life or freedom may be threatened” on account of their race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or opinion.
UN refugee guidelines also say that, once granted asylum, refugees may be returned forcibly only when conditions in their home have improved fundamentally.
In recent weeks Britain and other European countries have come under increasing pressure from the European Parliament to explain why they have been sending back to Afghanistan hundreds of Afghans whose asylum requests have been refused.
Since the European Union agreed to an aid package in 2016 with Afghanistan, which was tied to Kabul’s willingness to take back refused asylum-seekers, involuntary repatriations have accelerated.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says 500 Afghans were forcibly removed to Afghanistan in 2017. Human rights activists say people sent home could be killed.
“The majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced live under terrible conditions and want to return home,” said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
“But currently, even in certain so-called de-escalation areas, we’ve seen bloodshed, targeting of hospitals and schools, and death,” Mr Egeland said in a statement.
About 66,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2017, the report said.
But for every refugee or displaced person who returned to Syria last year, three were forced to flee their homes due to the ongoing violence, the agencies’ report said.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said last week that Lebanon would not force refugees to return to Syria, but called for more international help in dealing with the crisis.
More than a million Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon since the war broke out in 2011 and now account for about a quarter of the country’s population of 6 million.
The aid agencies, which also included Save the Children, Action Against Hunger, Danish Refugee Council and International Rescue Committee, also said that Syria’s shattered infrastructure could not support an influx of returnees.
Half of the country’s health facilities and a third of its schools are out of action because of the conflict.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist