A report titled "Our Lives Are Like Death: Syrian Refugee Returns from Lebanon and Jordan" documented "grave abuse" at the hands of regime-affiliated government forces against 65 returnees and their family members between 2017 and 2021. Of the 65, 21 faced arrests and arbitrary detention, 13 said they were tortured, and five cases of extrajudicial killings were recorded, the report said. There were also accounts of 17 enforced disappearances, three kidnappings and one alleged sexual violence case.
"The harrowing accounts of torture, enforced disappearance and abuse that refugees who went back to Syria endured should make it patently clear that Syria is not safe for returns," said Nadia Hardman, a researcher on refugee and migrant rights at HRW. “Widespread property rights violations and other economic hardships also make a sustainable return impossible for many,” she added.
Refugees in Lebanon and Jordan in particular have faced mounting direct and indirect pressure to return to Syria in violation of the principle of nonrefoulement, the rights organization said. In September, the United Nations announced that the toll of identified individuals killed in the Syrian conflict had risen to 350,209, though it warned that the real number could be much higher. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that over 6.6 million Syrians have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries.
UNHCR, the U.N. agency charged with providing international protection and humanitarian assistance to refugees, argues that Syria is insecure and that it will not facilitate mass returns in the absence of basic protection conditions, although it will facilitate individual voluntary return.
“No one will be safe in Syria until they stop the security agencies from terrorizing people,” said a 38-year-old refugee in Lebanon who went back to his hometown of Qunaitra in Syria.
New York-based HRW said all countries must protect Syrians from abused and tortured returns and stop any forced return to Syria. Earlier on Tuesday, a petition demanding Danish lawmakers to halt the controversial policy that has revoked the residency of a number of Syrian refugees received the required 50,000 signatures to be submitted to parliament. Denmark has set a dangerous precedent in the European Union by abolishing temporary protection status for residents of Damascus and its countryside.
In the summer of 2020, Denmark decided to reexamine the cases of about 500 Syrians from the capital Damascus, which is under the control of Assad's regime, saying "the current situation in Damascus is no longer such as to justify a residence permit or the extension of a residence permit."
The move, supported by much of Denmark's political class, had sparked protests and a petition was launched in April asking parliament to change the law allowing the measure. On Tuesday, the petition, which is available online, had been signed by more than 53,000 people.
"We want the Folketing (parliament) to change the law allowing the Danish authorities to send back Syrian refugees under the circumstances today," it reads, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Since Denmark announced the measure in the summer of 2020, at least 250 Syrians in Denmark have had their temporary residency permits revoked, according to government statistics published in May. At the end of an appeals process, those who had only been granted temporary residency could be placed in a detention center pending their deportation.
Under Danish immigration law, temporary residence permits are issued without an end date in cases of a "particularly serious situation in the country of origin characterized by arbitrary violence and attacks against civilians." But they can be revoked once conditions are deemed to have improved. Some 35,500 Syrians currently live in Denmark, more than half of whom arrived in 2015, according to Statistics Denmark.
Syria was dragged into a deep crisis after the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 and eventually devolved into an insurgency and civil war following a brutal military crackdown by Assad's regime, resulting in one of the largest humanitarian catastrophes in the past century.
HRW accused Lebanon of pursuing an "aggressive returns agenda" through measures such as the demolition of concrete shelters, curfews and forced evictions. The 72-page reports said Lebanon authorities have maintained a violent and inhuman return agenda, seeking to bring Syrian refugees to the edge and make them leave as soon as possible. It said Lebanon implemented restrictions, expelled refugees from some municipalities, obstructed the renewal of residence permits and deported thousands of Syrian refugees without trial. As a result of Lebanon's economic collapse, 90% of Syrians fell into extreme poverty and relied on loans and mounting debt to survive.
Meanwhile, Jordanian borders guards disallow Syrian refugees from reentering the country for three to five years, denying returnees the right to claim asylum and forcing them to return to Syria where they face persecution and torture.
"Lebanon and Jordan should lift all restrictions on Syrian refugees reentering their countries if they were not able to reestablish themselves inside Syria, or to get Syrian government protection. Lebanon should revoke the May 2019 Higher Defense Council decision for the summary deportation of all Syrian refugees who reenter irregularly after April 2019," the report said, adding that it should stop imposing "arbitrary or de facto reentry bans on Syrian refugees and clarify that Syrians can return to Jordan."
It also called on Denmark to revoke its controversial bill allowing it to send Syrian refugees back to Syria, where Assad's regime "pursue the same abuses against citizens that led them to flee in the first place, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment and torture."
“No country should be forcing refugees to return to Syria, so long as the Syrian government commits widespread human rights abuses,” Hardman said. “A decade on, returning refugees are still at risk of persecution from the same government they fled.”
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