At least 60 refugees who went back to Syria were assaulted by intelligence officers loyal to Bashar al Assad, proving that the country is still unsafe, Amnesty says.
Syrian regime leader Bahar al Assad has long urged Syrian refugees to return to their country, promising them goodwill and safety. But the ones who returned have faced sexual abuse, torture, arbitrary detention, rape and enforced disappearences at the hands of the country’s intelligence officers, a report by Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
Titled “You’re going to your death,” the report documented a total of 66 cases of individuals who were subjected to serious violations upon their return to Syria. Thirteen children aged between three weeks and 17 years of age, have been violated by the regime.
Five detainees have died in police custody and 17 people have disappeared, Amnesty said, countering claims that Syria is safe for the refugees’ return.
“No part of Syria is safe for returnees to go back to, and people who have left Syria since the beginning of the conflict are at real risk of suffering persecution upon return,” the report read.
“Therefore, any return to Syria at this time would be in violation of the international obligation of non-refoulement, as stated in Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention and other international instruments,” it continued.
The Refugee Convention prohibits states from transferring people to a place where they would be at real risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations.
Another sentiment: “Syria is no hotel”
In Syria, being from a formerly opposition or rebel-controlled area or having a relative affiliated with political or armed opposition is enough to attract the label of “terrorism.”
While most bombings are now happening in rebel-controlled Syria where more than 4 million people live, the regime-held areas aren't any safer either. Out of 66 people, 59 were arrested on so-called terrorism charges, regardless of their political views. Twenty four of them were raped or faced different forms of sexual violence.
“I didn’t flee the country because of bombs, but because of the threats of the Syrian regime. I didn’t leave my country easily. The reason why I left my country is still there,” Sema, one refugee who returned to Syria in 2019 from the United Arab Emirates because her father was seriously ill.
Refugees who lived in the Gulf countries or Turkey are particularly seen as traitors, or being accused of supporting the governments of the countries they lived as refugees.
Aya, one refugee who returned from Turkey with her daughters, told Amnesty that security members told her: “You’re terrorists… you’re Turkish, you’re Erdoganists,” before raping her.
Her name was changed in the report, like all the others.
Another refugee woman, Noor, recounted that she was also raped by a Syrian security officer at the border crossing with Lebanon. The officer later raped her five-year old daughter, she said.
“Why did you leave Syria? Because you don’t like Bashar al-Assad and you don’t like Syria? You’re a terrorist … Syria is not a hotel that you leave and return to when you want,” the officer told Noor.
EU says Syria isn’t safe, but some are rushing to deport refugees
However, more countries are either planning to send refugees back or have already begun deporting them.
In Europe, Sweden and Denmark have restricted residency permits of asylum-seekers from Damascus and Damascus countryside, based on their assessment that these areas are safe. Denmark stripped residency permits or denied renewing residencies of 402 refugees so far.
The European Union (EU), on the other hand, says conditions inside Syria at present do not lend themselves to the promotion of large-scale voluntary return.
Lebanon is also getting ready to implement an official framework to organise the refugees’ return to Syria. An estimated number of 6,000 Syrians meanwhile have been deported after mid-2019, based on claims that the refugees entered the country illegally.
Turkey, where a record number of refugees live, is working to create what it calls a “safe zone” in northern Syria, to ensure the safe return of refugees without handing them to the Syrian regime.
In a shift in policy in 2019, however, the country decided to deport “criminals” among the refugees back to Syria.
Since the war in Syria broke out in 2011 after a violent regime crackdown on protesters, around 6.6 million people from Syria have fled violence and repression.