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No, of course Syrian refugees can't go home. Here's why: Open in fullscreen

Abdulwahab Tahhan

No, of course Syrian refugees can't go home. Here's why:

The Syrian civil war is estimated to have killed half a million people [AFP]

Date of publication: 11 March, 2019

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Comment: Returning to Syria is as dangerous as ever, writes Abdulwahab Tahhan.
When the Syrian uprising against Assad began back in March 2011, the protesters demanded reforms such as equality and freedom of speech.

Now, nine years into the conflict, these demands still stand and there have been no reforms.

Instead, Assad's regime stands accused of human rights violations against its civilians, and US Congress is pushing to introduce more sanctions on the Syrian regime based on the Caesar report which documents the number of civilians tortured to death in Assad's prisons.

Last month, two members of Assad's regime were arrested in Germany based on a report that they were involved in torturing civilians in prison back in 2012.

Despite all these documented violations, some media outlets still choose to focus on the return of Syrian refugees, and promote an image of a normal country, ignoring all the red flags, violations and risk of persecution these refugees might face on their return.

In November 2018, the Lebanese minister of state for refugee affairs, Mouin Merhebi stated that about 20 Syrian refugees who returned from Lebanon to Syria had been killed by regime forces.

Moreover, Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, stated that around 700 were arrested when they crossed the borders and went back home, though not all of them remained in prison.

The practice of incarceration is however very common by the Syrian regime, and those who leave prison do not necessarily live freely.

I am a Syrian refugee living in London, and I still wonder why people are obsessed with sending me home

Last year, Sally Hayden and Ziad Ghandour reported for The Irish Times that those who returned where detained at the airport and had their passports confiscated, while others were sent to prison, later conscripted and taken to the front lines to fight.

In a country when law is on the side of those connected with the regime, there is no guarantee they'd be protected by presidential amnesty or any laws that might otherwise guarantee their safety.

In a TV appearance, Syrian Republican Guard General, Issam Zahreddine once infamously threatened those who had fled Syria and since returned, telling them they'd regret their decision.

This general is now dead, by his mentality prevails.

When I was a university student in Aleppo, I had to attend a two-week mandatory military training camp one summer.

Internally displaced Syrians from the eastern cities of Deir az-Zour and
Raqqa find temporary refuge at the Ain Issa camp [AFP]

We were given a military uniform and boots and were told to show up at the camp on our own. At the entrance, the colonel, who goes by the name Abu Saqer shouted at all the students, ordering us to duck. He took some soil and scattered it over our heads.

Swearing at us, he intoned, "your worth is less than this soil!" People serving in the army had, and still enjoy a status above civilians, and often practiced such violations without ever being questioned.

Syria is no longer fit for normal life.

The gas, electricity and petrol crisis in Assad-controlled areas make life very difficult even for supporters of the regime. Following the fall of Aleppo in December 2016, the city was devastated, drawing comparisons with WWII Stalingrad.

It remains perilous to live there: A couple of residential buildings have since collapsed, putting more civilians at risk of sudden death.

Those who leave prison do not necessarily live freely

And then there are the recent, horrific allegations of kidnap for ransom and body parts, which have become common in regime-controlled areas. Many I speak to in Aleppo describe how unsafe they feel, especially given the 'disappearances'.

In Idlib, where according to the UN around 3 million now live, the majority are displaced from all over Syria, and the regime continues to violate the Russian-Turkish de-escalation zone, carrying out air and artillery strikes.

In one week alone,
Airwars - an independent monitoring organisation based in London - reported that 16 civilians were killed in these airstrikes, including women and children.

In the East of the country the situation is no better; the US-led coalition's air campaign is 
ongoing and civilians are trapped between IS snipers and mines, and coalition airstrikes reportedly killing up to 120 civilians in a week.

Assad's regime is notorious for torturing civilians to death in its prisons. Save the Rest campaign and others advocate on behalf of those who are missing in Assad's prisons and demands their release.

Layla Shweikani, for example, a 26-year-old Chicago native was detained in Assad's prison and tortured to death for helping refugees and displaced people in Syria. The family learned about her death two years after she had died.

This practice is common by the Syrian regime; many families learn about the death of their loved ones in prison years after they were arrested. 

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, based in Qatar, estimates that over 118,000 have been arbitrarily arrested since March 2011.

Despite all of this, some journalists happily go to Syria on a regime issued visa, surrounded by regime minders as they interview people on the street about how safe they feel.  

By promoting this image that the country is safe for refugees to return, despite the fact that many members of the present regime are facing allegations of human rights violations, these outlets act as a mouthpiece for a regime responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

When Twitter's CEO tweeted photos of his meditation trip to Myanmar last year, it backfired, and he was widely accused of being a mouthpiece for a government that oppressed and killed thousands of Muslims and is accused of ethnic cleansing.

Concerning Syria, western journalists with a powerful platform are at best ignorant of a regime accused of killing hundreds of thousands, and at worst whitewashing the most brutal crimes of a generation.

I am reminded of Stuart Hall, a Jamaican-born British citizen who migrated to the UK when he was still a child and later became a professor in Cultural Studies. He wrote that all of his tutors asked him, "When are you going back home?" when he was lived in Britain and went to school there.

I am a Syrian refugee living in London, and I still wonder why people are obsessed with sending me home, while I am paying my taxes and contributing to society.

Is it not obvious that we are fleeing the bombs, and that Europe could be the safest place? For now, at least, returning home is not an option.

Abdulwahab Tahhan is a Syrian refugee based in London. He is a freelance researcher for Airwars and a visiting lecturer at UAL where he is doing his PhD in media studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @Abdultahhan

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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