The repatriation of Syrian and Rohinga refugees back to their respective homelands is ultimately sending them back for slaughter, writes Tamim Mobayed.
The continent of Asia witnessed two of the bloodiest movements of people fleeing from their homes of the last decade; the flights of the Rohingya from Myanmar, and the exodus of Syrians to neighbouring countries and beyond. Approximately 6.6 million Syrians fled the onslaught of the brutal conflict there, while around 690,000 Rohingya were driven to Bangladesh.
Conditions in refugee camps have ranged from the tolerable to the atrocious, while many refugees regularly face harassment and abuse within their host countries, scarping out existences well below the poverty line. As challenging as their new homes might be, refugees chose to leave their homes due to the dire consequences facing them. A concerning new trend is emerging which is seeing refugees being forced or coerced into returning to the lands which they fled.
At the beginning of November, government officials in Myanmar announced that a deal had been reached with Bangladesh in which at least 150 refugees would be returned per day. The UN’s human rights office, the OHCHR, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filiopo Grandi, both responded by reiterating the importance of no forced repatriation taking place, as well as the importance of the principle of non-refoulement. “Terror and panic” were reported by those on the ground, unsurprising, given the horrific act of ethnic cleansing that lead to the resettlement of the Rohingya. 42 international aid agencies signed a joint letter urging the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to halt their repatriation plan in November. Some Rohingya were reported to have attempted suicide on hearing the news, while others listed to be repatriated fled. One refugee, Mohammad Ayaj, reported that his father died of a heart attack at the age of 58, after suffering extreme anxiety and restless nights at the prospect of being forced back to the country he fled in fear for his life.
Towards the end of November, 100 Rohingya were forced back to Myanmar’s Rakhine state after trying to escape to Malaysia by boat. The reluctance to return is unsurprising, given the numerous reports showing that Rohingya in the Rakhine state continue to be subject to violence and persecution by the Myanmar authorities.
More than 50,000 Syrians have returned to Syria from Lebanon, while as many as 30,000 have returned from Jordan; the UN does not support the return of Syrian refugees, and with good reason. The returns from Lebanon came on the back of a deal with the Syrian government,which is arguably using this as a PR exercise. The situation of Syrians is Lebanon has been particularly troubled, with numerous reports of abuse and ill-treatment; Syrians in Lebanon are usually denied the right to work, often forcing refugees into the black market to provide for their dependents.
Both the Lebanese and Jordanian governments regularly comment on the weight of Syrian refugees on their economies, with the Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil telling reporters earlier this year that, “There is no reason for refugees to stay”. While Lebanon has experienced a huge influx of refugees, the international community has given the country more than $5 billion in aid to address this since 2011.
The scapegoating of refugees for governments facing pressure from their citizens is not a new ploy. Mass evictions of Syrians by the Lebanese government goes back to 2016. European voices have waded into this debate, with politicians from Austria,Far Right groups in Germany(Alternative Help Association) and Vladimir Putin himself talking of the need for Syrian refugees to return.
It is now accepted that refugees who do return to Syria are rigorously vetted by Bashar Al Assad’s government, while others are denied the right to return outright. Deceased and once celebrated Syrian Arab Army General Issam Zahreddine warned refugees last year not to return to Syria as, “we will never forgive or forget…if you know what is good for you, none of you return”. Similarly, the head Syria’s air force intelligence, Major General Jamal al-Hassan, went on record to say that a Syria with 10 million “trustworthy citizens” was better than Syria with “30 million vandals”, speaking of refugees in terms of being “cancerous cells” of which the body of Syria was now cleansed. The language of both men reflects genocidal intent.
Through the issuance of a new decree known as Law No. 10, the Syrian government legalised the confiscation of the property of refugees in April of this year. Another cruel practice that Assad has engaged in is the forced arrest and conscription of military-aged men and boys; this practice is particularly prevalent in areas that were once strongholds against Assad. Just this week a photo of shackled conscripts in Damascus’s Mezzeh district went viral. As further evidence of what awaits Syrian refugees who return home, Assad’s forces have been rounding up members of the White Helmets, humanitarian first-respondents, even those who reside in areas that reached reconciliation deals with him. Dozens of other returnees have also been reportedly murdered by the Assad government.
The factors that were in place that lead innocent civilians to leave their homes and walk towards the unknown have not changed. In fact, in the case of Syria,the government there is now emboldened having seemingly won the war and facing no significant repercussions from the international community. There is nothing more damaging to a victim of trauma than forcing them to return to the place of their affliction.
Rohingya and Syrian refugees have witnessed intense horrors and are still carrying the wounds and scars of the horrors they experienced.Forced repatriation of refugees is not only illegal according to the UN’s principle of non-refoulement, it is critically unethical, particularly as it is seemingly being pushed for as a matter of convenience for host countries, and a PR victory for countries of origin. Any movement on this issue should be carried out with the welfare of the refugees as a priority.