Refugees

Syrian refugees weigh the possibility of return

By Noor al-Saleh in Amman

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Vehicles wait to pass through the recently reopened Jaber-Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria. [Photo courtesy of UNHCR] 

Since the Jaber-Nassib border crossing reopened on October 15th, many Syrians have decided to return to their homeland after spending years in Jordan as refugees.

This trend has been encouraged by the Syrian regime, which has been amplifying its calls for the refugees to return, now that it has regained control of most of the country.

"It is where my home and people are," said Abu Ahmad, a 60-year-old Syrian refugee who has taken refuge in Jordan in 2016 and has now chosen to return to his homeland, along with many others.

Abu Ahmad, who opted not to reveal his full name, told Al-Mashareq he has no idea what to expect regarding the situation in Syria.

But he saw a glimpse of hope when the border opened, he said, and a chance to go back to check on his family, belongings and the life he left behind.

Many Syrians have opted to leave Jordan and other countries where they have found temporary shelter to escape the difficult conditions of living as refugees.

A large percentage of them can not obtain work permits, and subsist in very poor conditions, despite the efforts of host country governments to provide for their basic needs and education.

Many are homesick, and others carry within them a constant feeling of being a burden on the host society.

"No matter what the situation is in Syria, it is better to be with your own people," Abu Ahmad said.

But the seven-year war has laid waste to Syrian cities, many of which lack the necessary infrastructure to meet the needs of the returnees.

Fluctuating number of returnees

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees returning to Syria from Jordan has fluctuated with the changing situation across the border, as during the offensive in south-west Syria.

"We have seen peaks and troughs depending on what the situation is in certain areas in Syria," said UNHCR Representative in Jordan Stefano Severe.

"When the peace accord was signed in August 2017, we saw a spike in the numbers going back," he said. "This year, however, before June, only 1,800 refugees have been recorded going back."

The exact number of refugees who have returned to Syria is not yet known, with some sources estimating more than 30,000 have gone back.

According to Severe, this is a little exaggerated, and reflects the general traffic at the border, rather than the actual numbers of refugees returning.

"There is a slight misconception around who is a refugee returning and who is a Jordanian or Syrian just engaging in normal cross-border movement as part of normal immigration or trading procedures," he said.

Through its database, UNHCR was able to verify that 3,852 refugees returned to Syria between October 15th and December 1st, while a list shared by the Jordanian government put the number at 4,300.

"Although the numbers are different, there are also many Syrians who are not registered with UNHCR, and this is the main reason for the difference," Severe said.

"Around 50% of those who returned are from Daraa region, which has seen relative stability over the last few months," he noted, adding that "at the moment, returns are spontaneous".

UNHCR has been working with the authorities at the border to build capacity so they can properly manage the returns process and provide information.

"The main issue for the refugees is that they need proper documentation in order to return and this is expensive," Severe said. "They have to go to the Syrian embassy and regularise their status, pay for documents like passports."

Some are reluctant to go back

Through acquaintances in Syria, Yadan Draji, co-founder of Auranitis Lifeline in Jordan, a non-governmental organisation, has learned that some returnees are being arrested upon their return to Syrian territory.

"If it is not political, it is mainly to force those arrested to serve in the Syrian army," he told Al Mashareq.

"During the first few months after the borders opened, Syrians were excited to go back home," he said. "Now, due to security reasons and the arrests that are taking place, people are reluctant to go back - let us say, scared."

Draji, who has lived in Jordan for more than seven years, founded Auranitis with others with the aim of building resilient communities in southern Syria.

He has not considered going back himself, he said, although he has not seen his father and brother since the Syrian conflict started.

"It is still not safe," he said, pointing out that he may be arrested as well.

"Back in Syria, I was politically active as a journalist and documented many violations committed by the Syrian regime," he said.

According to a recent survey conducted by NAMA for Strategic Intelligence Solutions, 32% of Syrian refugees in Jordan are sure they will not return to their homeland, while only 14% are "very determined" to return to Syria.

"If things remain as they are, people will stop wanting to go back," Draji said. "What refugees are actually looking for is security, and of course services, mainly health and education."

"The government can only provide electricity and water for now, nothing more."

Many of those who returned have no home to go back to, he added, due to the destruction of residential areas.

"People do not have the means to rent houses, and in areas that are safe, neighbourhoods are very crowded and can not accommodate the number of people who are returning, he said.

No shelters or camps have been set up to receive them.

UNHCR does not expect a large number of refugees to return during the winter, but anticipates that numbers will increase by the spring.

Syrians who have children in school or university in Jordan also are reluctant to return until their children's schooling is over, Draji said.

No pressure to return

Returns to Syria have been voluntary, to date, and the Jordanian government is not placing any pressure on refugees to go back to Syria.

"It is their choice," Severe said.

"For the time being there is no pressure on refugees," he added. "But there is always the worry that if funding is reduced, then that will add pressure on them to go home."

UNHCR has begun to advise people about their eventual return, he said, but it knows this will take time, with the large amount of reconstruction that is needed.

"Refugees have to be confident in going back home," Severe said.

Draji said the reopening of the border did not change anything for him. The only question is, "Is it safe yet?" he said.

Despite the insecurity, Abu Ahmad still intends to return to his house and repair it, in the hope that one day, his family is gathered under one roof again.

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4 Comment(s)

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great!

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No, on the contrary, we're happy. Everything will be just fine, God willing!

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This Draji and the likes are the ones who benefit from the non-return. They’re the ones who talk about lack of security and stability because they benefit when people don’t return. The countries where there are refugees must issue orders about the need for them to return to their countries. However, these are countries that don’t want safety in Syria because they don’t want stability.

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If I return, will they rent me a house? I ask the regime not to chase me to do the reserve service. I also need a job.

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