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Beware of the circular logic encouraging refugee returns to Syria

‘European countries must be careful not to get sucked in, or willfully contribute.’

Syrians holding the flag of the Syrian revolution during a demonstration in Amsterdam, Netherlands in March 2022 to commemorate the eleventh anniversary of the beginning of protests against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto
Syrians hold the flag of the Syrian revolution during a demonstration in Amsterdam in March 2022 to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the beginning of protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

This week, the EU organises the seventh annual “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” conference in Brussels to discuss and raise money for Syria’s multiple crises. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees face more pressure to return than at any other point since the civil war broke out 12 years ago. Amidst rampant xenophobia and economic hardship, countries neighbouring Syria, such as Türkiye and Lebanon, are already pushing – sometimes forcing – refugees to return. 

The Arab League’s recent readmission of Syria – which had been suspended from the regional organisation since 2011 – is providing a pretext to claim that the country is now stable and safe. 

The result is a problematic circular logic arguing that if it is safe for refugees to return to Syria, then it is okay to normalise relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime; and if it is okay to normalise relations with the regime, it must be safe for refugees to return to Syria. 

But Syria is clearly not safe for most people to go back to, and many who have returned have faced hardship, violence, and persecution.

Race to the bottom

European states are increasingly reluctant to take on refugee protection responsibilities, and the EU is continuing its drive to externalise border controls and refugee hosting. In combination with the growing pushes for refugee returns from regional host countries to Syria, this generates a risk that wishful thinking on stabilisation in Syria will lead to a twofold race to the bottom in terms of refugee protection and upholding non-refoulement. 

In this dynamic, our ongoing research suggests, European and Middle Eastern countries might point at each other’s rhetoric and actions to justify their own (potential) deportations. The cycle risks taking on a life of its own, to the extreme detriment of refugees’ rights and lives. 

This is neither desirable nor inevitable. Given worsening conditions in regional host countries and concerns stemming from the creeping normalisation of ties with the al-Assad government, the EU should be expanding, rather than diminishing, its support for refugees. This means strengthening refugee protection mechanisms in Europe, creating robust resettlement programmes, and establishing meaningful responsibility sharing arrangements. 

Also, considering that Lebanon, Türkiye, and Jordan are enforcing premature deportations – to differing degrees – they should not be considered safe third countries that European states can use to outsource their own protection responsibilities. In fact, when EU countries push refugees back to regional host states such as Türkiye and Lebanon, they are exposing refugees to the risk of chain refoulement

The danger of return mimicry 

Türkiye, Lebanon, and Jordan host around 4.7 million of the region’s 5.3 million registered Syrian refugees. At the same time, they are facing both interlocking political and economic crises and declining support from international donors.

Political and public resentment towards refugees is growing, and Syrians are facing an increasingly hostile political climate, impoverishment, and in some cases, organised illegal deportations. In this context, the steps taken towards regional normalisation vis-à-vis the al-Assad regime and the related discourse that Syria is safe for return raises fears of mass forced returns.

Meanwhile, European positions on the al-Assad regime and refugee returns to Syria are more ambivalent than they might appear.

Officially, the EU remains firm in its diplomatic approach against the al-Assad regime, and maintains that refugee returns to Syria can only be encouraged or facilitated when they are “safe, voluntary, dignified”, according to UN standards. The EU has also underscored that these conditions are not currently in place. 

But member states, including Italy, Hungary, and Austria, have declared their intentions to open embassies in Damascus. And, behind the scenes at least, some states have shown an eagerness to consider Syria a safe country (or a country with safe zones) to justify sending Syrians back and prevent the arrival of new refugees in Europe.

In light of all this, it’s not far-fetched to anticipate attempts by some European countries to leverage the changing regional approach towards al-Assad, and the rising rates of illegal deportations, to legitimise their own decisions to return refugees to Syria.

In fact, several member states – Denmark being the first and most striking example – have already declared certain government-held areas of Syria “safe” for refugees to return to – and this happened even before the regional détente. Denmark has revoked the protection status of hundreds of Syrian refugees, but since it doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Syria, refugees who resist return decisions cannot be forcibly deported. 

Still, the Danish return decisions risk resonating with other states that are hostile to refugees within and beyond the EU. As a Danish parliamentarian put it in a recent debate on Syrian refugee returns: “if we don’t stand behind the human rights principles that we preach and begin sending refugees back, what will they say in Lebanon, Türkiye, and other host states?” Indeed, Lebanese politicians have indicated that they see European countries’ return practices as an excuse to enforce deportations, more or less saying, “If Europe is doing it, so can we.”

Considering the treacherous feedback loop that exists around refugee returns – and the harsh reality that continues to prevail in Syria – European countries must be careful not to get sucked in, or willfully contribute. 

This ongoing regional normalisation with the al-Assad government is cause for more – not less – protection and resettlement of Syrian refugees. And it calls for increased vigilance of the all-to-real risks that many could be illegally forced back to a country that is not just unsafe, but downright dangerous.

The research was supported and funded by the Swiss Network for International Studies. Both authors currently work in a research project funded by the association on the interregional politics of Syrian refugee returns.

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