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Syrian refugees targeted on their return home, human rights groups say

21 June 20190 comments

Hundreds of Syrian refugees have been arrested after returning home as the war they fled comes to an end, according to human rights groups in the Middle East.

Many have been interrogated, forced to inform on close family members and in some cases tortured, the groups say.

Many more who survived the conflict in rebel-held territory now retaken by government forces are meeting a similar fate as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues its long held practice of using informers and surveillance.

Going home for Syrian refugees requires permission from the government and a willingness to provide a full accounting of any involvement they had with the political opposition.

But human rights groups say that in many cases the guarantees offered by the government as part of this “reconciliation” process turn out to be false, with returnees subjected to harassment or extortion by security agencies or detention and torture to extract information about the refugees’ activities while they were away.

Almost 2,000 people have been detained after returning to Syria during the past two years, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, while hundreds more in areas once controlled by the rebels have also been arrested.

Since the war erupted in 2011, more than 5 million people have fled Syria and 6 million others have been displaced to other parts of the country – amounting to about half of the Syrian population, according to the United Nations.

In the past two years, as Assad’s forces have recaptured much of the country and refugees have begun to trickle back.

The United Nations says that at least 164,000 refugees have returned to the country since 2016 but because of a lack of access, it has not been able to document whether they have come back to government or opposition-held areas.

Last month, the United Nations said that it had documented 380 detentions in Daraa alone and that at least two people had died in custody.

Assad has called for more refugees to return encouraging them in a televised address in February to “carry out their national duties.”

He said forgiveness would be afforded to returnees “when they are honest.”

A recent survey of Syrians who returned to government-held areas found that about 75 percent had been harassed at checkpoints, in government registry offices or in the street, conscripted into the military despite promises they would be exempted, or arrested. 

Outside Syria, many refugees talk of their fears of going home citing concerns over a lack of personal security.

And aid groups say there are few signs that a large-scale return is imminent.

But pressure on the refugees to return is rising across the Middle East, with Syria’s neighbours tightening restrictions on them in part to encourage them to leave.

Syrians living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey now have limited rights to work. It has also become increasingly difficult to secure the correct paperwork to stay there legally, increasing the Syrians’ risk of exploitation and abuse, as well as restricting their access to health care and education. 

Advocacy groups say the reconciliation process as a way for the Syrian government to expand the information it collects about its citizens as a way of “dissent-proofing” the future. 

Documents released this month by the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Centre illustrate the type of information being collected before the 2011 uprising. 

Memos from security agencies, including the Political Security and Military Intelligence directorates, even include reports on youth-club field trips.

By the time popular protests started, the documents contained growing lists of named informants, the release revealed.