Omer Onhon

Tragedy of the Syrians Continues, While the World is Focused Elsewhere

There are many tragic outcomes of the Syrian civil war, but the most tragic one should be the case of Syrian refugees.

The events in Syria created the world’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. According to UNHCR, as of 31 January 2022, total number of registered Syrian refugees who have fled since 2011 and are living abroad is 5,689,538. Together with the unregistered, the number is estimated at around 7 million.

Majority of Syrians who fled Syria live in neighboring countries. (Turkey: 3.7 million; Lebanon: 839.788; Jordan: 673.188; Iraq: 256.006).

Additionally, in Syria there are 6.2 million internally displaced people. Thus, out of a pre-war population of 23 million Syrians, only 9-10 million have been able to remain in their place of origin.

Situation in Turkey, where most Syrians live:

The first group of Syrians who fled the crisis (252 of them) came into Turkey on 29 April. Then, as the crisis escalated, numbers began to rise and Turkish officials declared red lines. But the crisis developed in such a pace that red lines became meaningless.

In 2012 number of Syrians who entered Turkey was 14,000 and in 2013 the number went up to 224,000. Syrians fleeing their country swelled during the period 2014-2016. As a direct consequence of ISIS insurgence, Russian aerial bombardments and regime taking back Aleppo, the number of Syrians in Turkey went up to 2.8 million by the end of 2016 and then to its present number, exceeding 3.6 million.

Syrians in Turkey who are under the status of temporary protection, have become a fact of life. In the last 10 years, 735,000 Syrian babies were born in Turkey. According to information released by the Minister of Interior, as of 31 December 2021, 193,293 Syrians have become Turkish citizens, 84,152 of whom are children.

Syrians in Turkey are now a part of Turkish domestic policy. Surveys indicate that for at least half of the electorate, Syrian refugees will be one of the issues in consideration in deciding which party to vote for.

Are Syrians returning back to Syria?

According to UNHCR, as of 31 January 2022, within the last 10 years, the total numbers of Syrians returning to their country from the neighboring countries are as follows: 125,047 from Turkey; 66,803 from Lebanon; 61,731 from Jordan; 50,106 from Iraq.

But, numbers may differ depending on the source. For example, spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior of Turkey recently stated that as of 4 February 2022, a total of 484,400 Syrians had returned to Syria.

Returns from Jordan and Lebanon are also minimal. On 3 January 2022, the UNHCR in Jordan announced at a press conference that 5,500 Syrian refugees had returned from Jordan to Syria in 2021.

According to “Lebanon Refugee Protection Watch”, despite the difficulties of living conditions in Lebanon, just 0.8 percent of Syrian refugees are considering to return. On the other hand, the report reveals that more than half of the returnees came back to Lebanon because of economic hardship, evasion of military service and harassment by security officials in Syria.

In Turkey, Syrians were asked whether they consider returning back to Syria. According to this survey, in 2017, 16 percent; in 2019, 36 percent; in 2020, 58 percent; in 2021, 80 percent of Syrians said they would not return to Syria.

In any event, no matter which data is considered, it is obvious that the actual returns make up a very insignificant percentage and the intent to return in the future, at least in near future, is very low.

Why are Syrians reluctant to return:

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2449 stipulates a “safe, voluntary and dignified return”. But the present situation is very far away from these.

On several occasions the Assad regime has called upon Syrians to return. The response was negative.

I think the main reasons for the negative response are as follows:

-Syria is full of uncertainties and is unsafe. There is no political settlement. Fighting has not come to an end. Crime has surged. It is too risky to move back.

-The regime is not ready to forget and forgive. Reports from various sources reveal that quite a number of returnees have faced arrest, detention, maltreatment, torture and at times death.

-Economic conditions are very bad. Infrastructure, housing, schooling, health services etc are not sufficient to provide an acceptable standard of life.

-Many Syrians have lost their houses and properties.

-Syrians who have fled, have established a life whichever country they are living now.

In fact, the process is working the other way round. Whereas the international community is talking about how to facilitate a return to Syria, there seems to be a reverse process. Many people are leaving Syria or looking forward to leave at the first chance they get.

Role of the international community:

Syrians may be the largest group of refugees but they are not the only ones. Afghans are in the waiting, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iran. Then, there is the case of people fleeing violence, instability and poverty in Africa and seeking a fresh start elsewhere, mostly in Europe.

The refugee issue is the problem for the entire international community. It is too big for individual countries to deal with. No matter how rich in resources and capabilities, every individual country has its limits and would be overwhelmed at some point.

International solidarity and burden sharing are required. Countries are making their contributions, but to an extent. They are much more focused on the political, social and other implications of refugees and how to protect themselves against their effects.

We have been watching heartbreaking tragedies. For instance, in February this year, Greek border units captured a group of people who had crossed the border into Greece illegally, stripped them of their clothing and pushed them back to Turkey. Under below zero weather conditions, in the middle of nowhere, 19 of these people froze to death.

Harsh winter conditions claiming lives of Syrian babies in make shift camps in Syria, people drowning in the Mediterranean, sufferings and exploitation at the hands of human smugglers are no less tragedies.

The real and permanent solution for Syrian refugees is at the source, that is in Syria. Only if a political solution can be found, a safe and voluntary return could be realized.

Many believe that Assad does not see any merit in return and is happy to keep out Syrians who would be an extra burden on an already shattered economy and who are mostly his opponents.

It is on the international community to push for a political solution in Syria and to put pressure on Assad in order to create the right conditions for return.