CAFOD and SCIAF support the right of refugees living outside their country to go home and to determine if and when it is safe for them to return. We understand the longing of those who have been forced to leave their own country to go back home. In the context of the Syria conflict we recognise the tremendous generosity that neighbouring countries have demonstrated, particularly Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, in hosting so many Syrian refugees. The war in Syria has been going on for over 7 years, with more than 5 and a half million people having fled the country, mostly to neighbouring countries. In the light of such huge numbers, we recognise that viable long-term solutions to the refugee crisis are likely to include a mix of 3 aspects: for refugees to return home to Syria, for those who are too afraid or unable to return to be resettled in a third country outside the region or for refugees to re-build their lives and livelihoods in the neighbouring countries where they fled to.
It is essential that all returns must be safe and must be voluntary1 , and free from any form of coercion.
Whilst good humanitarian practice should include careful forward planning, such as now being undertaken by the UNHCR, as well as by the host governments and other actors, CAFOD and SCIAF call for a number of pre-conditions to be in place before significant numbers of refugees are encouraged and facilitated to return home to Syria. Until the following pre-conditions are in place, refugees should not be actively encouraged to return:
Pre-conditions for return:
• A political settlement which ends the war, and which includes guarantees of the safety of civilians is the most fundamental and important pre-condition for safe return. Without an end to the war there can be no real guarantees for the safety of returnees. There must also be firm commitments to put in place transitional justice and reconciliation processes.
• Once there is a negotiated peace agreement the following protection for returnees must be assured:
a. The Government of Syria must provide clear guarantees for the safety and non-discrimination of returnees. There must be a clear monitoring mechanism to ensure that these guarantees are respected, and international actors, through the UN, must have unencumbered access to all areas where refugees have returned to in order to monitor the guarantees.
b. The Guarantees and frameworks for monitoring those guarantees agreed to by the Syrian government for the safety of returning refugees must be made public and must be clearly communicated to all refugees considering return, so they are made aware of their rights and avenues for reporting infringements and obtaining redress in the case of need.
c. People should not to be punished, discriminated against or stigmatised because they have spent time as refugees in exile or because of their political affiliation.
d. There must be guarantees that men who have not undertaken their military service will not be forced to serve in the military, and those who have served are not forced to register as reservists.
e. There should be no discrimination in employment, schooling or access to services such as healthcare.
f. Assurances must be in place to enable people to return to their places of origin and reclaim their homes and land. Where people cannot return to their places of origin – either because of the extent of the destruction of villages or because of sectarian shifts in populations, alternative locations must be identified.
g. The international community must provide financial support to enable people to survive during the initial period of their return as they re-establish themselves, and grants must be made available to rebuild destroyed property and livelihoods.
h. Borders must not be closed to people who find that they are in danger once they go back to Syria and need to flee back to the country where they were previously refugees, - they must be allowed to again seek safety and sanctuary with humanitarian support provided.
We echo the position of the Lebanon Humanitarian INGO Forum: ‘Currently no framework exists whereby parties in Syria and the mandated international actors can guarantee the voluntariness, safety and dignity of refuges returns so there should be no facilitation or promotion of refugees returning at this time whether by governments, the UN or others such as non-state actors’. Like most Syrian organisations in the exterior, our partner Basmeh & Zeitooneh states: ‘Basmeh & Zeitooneh does not endorse the repatriation of Syrian refugees from Lebanon and Turkey and has serious concerns about the looming drop in funding for humanitarian assistance to the refugee community that may result from it. Repatriation of Syrian refugees cannot at this point be considered ‘voluntary, safe or dignified’ given the continuous lack of peace, stability, and respect for human rights in Syria. Another of our partners based in the region notes that ‘Any plans for return should not reinforce existing structures which caused atrocities in the first place’.