Syria: Why the refugee crisis continues

Smoke rises as a result of air strikes on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights at the village of Arab Asudi in the southeastern Quneitra province, as seen from the Israeli side of the border, 25 July 2018. [EPA-EFE/ATEF SAFADI]

750,000 Syrians have returned to their homes since the beginning of the year. At the same time, more than 900,000 people have become refugees. An analysis by EURACTIV Germany’s media partner “Der Tagesspiegel“.

It sounds like good news from Syria for once. A few days ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that more and more internally displaced people are returning to their homes.

In the first six months of 2018, an estimated 750,000 children, women and men from different regions have returned to where they lived before the uprising against ruler Bashar al Assad – almost as many as the year before.

UN experts attribute the increase in those willing to return to the military successes of the regime. In recent months, pro-government units – with massive Iranian and Russian support – have re-taken much of the country’s territory. Insurgents had to retreat from Homs, Aleppo and the suburbs around Damascus.

Living in extreme poverty

That let-up has prompted inhabitants to make their way home. However, people are usually left with nothing. Their homes are often destroyed, looted or simply taken over by other Syrians.

There are virtually no jobs, families can barely keep afloat. More than 70% of the Syrian population lives in extreme poverty, has less than two dollars per person per day available. Hospitals, health centres and schools are rarely in operation.

Therefore, Martin Keßler, head of the humanitarian NGO Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, considers a debate on Syria returnees premature. “As long as there is no lasting peace, nothing changes in the perspective of the people.” That Assad was able to consolidate his power in the country again benefited the aid organisation indirectly, says Kessler.

“The German government must rethink”

Volunteers can now become active in several parts of Syria. But the German government only provides money for working in rebel areas, although the plight in Assad’s sphere of influence is not necessarily less significant. “Here we demand a rethinking from the German government,” says Kessler.

In any case, there can be no question that Syria’s refugee crisis has been defused by the return of 750,000 internally displaced persons.

But acccording to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, more than 920,000 Syrians have become refugees in the first four months of this year alone, a record since the beginning of the war in 2011.

That is especially due to fierce fighting in the south of the country, which has pushed at least 6.6 million people across the country to go on the run. Most need daily help for survival, such as food, water and medicines. They usually live in shabby shelters like camps, ruins and abandoned garages. Children rarely go to school.

The same applies to those Syrians who have managed to find protection in one of the neighbouring states. Three countries bear the biggest burden: Turkey with more than three million refugees, as well as Lebanon and Jordan, which each host around 1 million. Here, too, Syrians often live in catastrophic conditions.

Empty regime promises

Most are clearly still unwilling to return to their homeland. The UN refugee agency counted only 13,000 in the first half of 2018 crossing back across the border.

Obviously, many do not trust the regime’s promise that they would be welcomed with open arms. Rather, they seem to fear state reprisals because they could be considered Assad opponents.

Thus, the fear of arbitrary arrests by the ubiquitous, notorious secret service is marked. It is a well-known fact that torture is conducted in prisons. Young people are also threatened with military conscription and rapid deployment to the frontlines.

When guests become a burden

In the Cedar State, hospitality has become a source of great scepticism, and even rejection. The country is struggling under the weight of the refugees. The government – and with it many Lebanese – would rather get rid of the Syrians sooner rather than later, given the poor economic situation of the country.

The situation is becoming more and more precarious for Syrian people living in Lebanon. A few days ago, hundreds of people headed home. It is a return to the unknown.

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