These coercive tactics are supplemented by additional cases of deportation, which are regularly documented in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of Syrians deported from Jordan spiked in early 2017 with nearly 400 refugees sent back per month in the first half of 2017, the second major spike since the beginning of 2016. Many of their relatives "voluntarily" returned to Syria alongside their deported family members.

Growing trend in deportations

Because many Syrian refugees are not registered with the government, there is also fear that Jordanʹs push to detain more refugees within camps will lead to further deportations. In Turkey, human rights groups have documented cases of deportation since 2016, as many as 100 per day. Although there is limited available information, this trend appears to be continuing and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim further claimed in July 2017 that refugees who commit crimes will be deported.

These policies force the UNHCR into a difficult position: accede to unsafe repatriations or stand by as returnees go back in a chaotic and potentially harmful manner. In August 2017, the UNHCR began to scale up its operations in Syria to facilitate the resettlement of Syrians who return, expanding its staff and seeking $150 million for these operations.

The refugee agency announced in June that they are making the necessary preparations for managing the increasing returns, even though they do not promote or facilitate refugee returns to Syria due to ongoing instability. Sustainable return – which requires extensive collaboration between the UNHCR, donor countries, international organisations, refugees and officials of the host country – is not feasible. The majority of Syriaʹs refugees fled the Syrian government and cannot return to "safe areas" due to the widespread destruction, continuing violence and the risk of retaliatory violence.

The dangers of premature return

Since 2011, the Syrian army has led widespread military operations against residential neighbourhoods, villages and, in some cases, entire cities with egregious bombing campaigns, chemical weapons attacks, sieges and forced displacement campaigns producing the majority of Syriaʹs refugees. Furthermore, the widespread destruction of property and infrastructure, lack of available services and unexploded mines left by retreating fighters creates extensive security risks for returnees.

Sending refugees home prematurely – before the conditions are conducive for a safe and sustainable return – will exacerbate already-deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Syria, placing stress on what limited services and fragile governance is left in the areas to which refugees return and forcing returnees to compete with those who remained for jobs, resources and shelter. Moreover, should violent conflict break out in those areas, there is the very real risk of renewed internal displacement.

Jesse Marks

© Sada | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2018        

Jesse Marks is a Scoville Fellow and Fulbright Fellow based in Amman, Jordan.

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