Syrian refugees return —to face genocide?

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that this year has seen a “notable trend of spontaneous returns” of displaced Syrians to their homes, both from outside and inside the country. Around 31,000 refugees returned from neighboring countries in the first six months of 2017, while more than 440,000 internally displaced persons went back to their homes—a combined total of nearly half a million. The main destinations are said to be Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus—all now largely under regime control after years of heavy fighting against rebel forces. UNHCR representative Andrej Mahecic said Syrians are seeking out family members, checking on property, and “in some cases responding to a real or perceived improvement in security conditions in parts of the country.” But he warned that despite hopes over recent peace talks in Astana and Geneva, the “UNHCR believes conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria.”  (The Independent, July 1)

We’d call that a dramatic understatement. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) just issued a report (PDF) detailing the killing of 13,029 people by torture since Syria’s uprising began in March 2011. Almost all the deaths—12,090, including 161 children and 41 women—were in the prisons of the Assad regime. ISIS and rebel forces were each blamed for 30 killed; Nusra Front and its sucessor organizations for 17; and Kurdish factions for 26.

The report from the SNHR, which has monitored casualties and destruction since the start of the conflict, provides details of individual cases and testimonies by survivors. It says 106,727 people are still in detention, 87% of them in regime prisons and “unofficial” detention centers, where there are “one or two” deaths each day from torture. (EA Worldview, July 3)

This provides further corroboration of claims that the Assad regime has now escalated to genocide in its war on the Syrian people. The mounting evidence is being collected by those who hope to bring Bashar Assad to The Hague for a war crimes trial. The UN last year established a mechanism to investigate war crimes in Syria, potentially including genocide.

And in addition to the lure of a modicum of peace allowing the displaced to return to check up on family and property, there is the growing desperation of the refugees trapped in Turkey and Jordan with diminishing prospects of reaching safe shores. European countries including Germany, Austria and Norway are now offering financial incentives for asylum seekers to “voluntarily” return to their home countries, as border security has been beefed up throughout the EU. The vast majority of Syrians in Europe arrived via treacherous boat crossings to Greek islands, but these have slowed to a trickle since the controversial EU-Turkey deal was imposed in March of last year, with anyone arriving over the Aegean Sea detained under threat of deportation. (The Independent, July 1)

With five million refugees out of perhaps 12 million displaced, Syria now represents the world’s biggest displacement crisis.

  1. Kurdish forces implicated in torture?

    The Syrian Network for Human Rights report charges Kurdish "self-management forces" in Syria with at least 25 killings of detainees under torture. Described methods include "electrical shocks, starvation, and denial of health care, especially against those who are accused of aligning themselves with armed opposition factions and their relatives."

    As with the repeated charges of "ethnic cleansing" by Kurdish forces in Syria, we await a reponse both from the Kurds' autonomous authorities and international rights groups.