Syrian refugees are heading back from Lebanon in very low numbers. Many are exhausted with the UN and the dehumanising living conditions in Lebanon, forcing them to risk their lives. But their fate is still a mystery in Assad’s Syria.
BEIRUT — They arrived even before dawn, tired, bewildered and somnolent after their journey in mid-September this year. In what many Lebanese consider to be the tawdry Armenian area of Beirut, they sat on their huge sacks of clothes and personal belongings and barely spoke to one another as they waited for the General Security office to open, to process their exit papers out of Lebanon and back to Syria.
But what exactly are they heading back to? And what is the driving force for this most recent wave returning from Lebanon?
In fact, it is a number of factors which have led to these departures and are still continuing, although the experts can’t agree whether the numbers are waning, or will continue at a steady-drip feed rate.
Chief among them is how, in recent years, life in Lebanon has become so tough that many refugees there are struggling to pay their rents and a number of evictions were ordered to get them off farmers’ land, which in turn was causing problems for the Lebanese authorities. Where do you put refugees who have just been evicted off land which they can’t afford to rent? It’s often unreported, but in Lebanon, refugees pay for everything they consume.
Many couldn’t feed themselves or heat themselves during winter. And a recent clamp down on illegal burials even caused problems with the burying of their dead in Lebanon resulting in a spate of midnight burials. Syrians had literally reached a breaking point and couldn’t take any more, which itself corresponded with the geopolitics of the region. For a lot of people, it was also about being poor with no healthcare. Some poignantly complained about a dire lack of equality in how the UN treated them.
“We are so happy that we are going back, and we're waiting for it to calm down so that we can all go back to our country,” said a 40-year-old woman who didn’t want to give her name. “I’m not afraid, we trust our Syrian government, and when they said it’s safe all the people want to go back now”.
I asked her, through a translator, what she expects to see. Her smile vanishes and her tone changes.
“I am expecting everything, there was a war there. I expect to see ruins, people changed, but of course, we hope for the best” she replies. “The path is safe for leaving. But (as for the) other things, I can not talk about them, no one knows. Apparently, it’s safe, and everything is better now.”
She's doubtful whether the stories circulating about her homeland are true. “I’m not sure about the stories of torture. In war, everything happens. But in Lebanon, here, the UN could have done more. There is a lot of people (who were) not treated fairly, they didn’t get help, nor education, nor medical treatment, nor anything.”
It’s a sentiment which resonates in many ways across refugees: Inequality and grinding, incomprehensible poverty sapping the last ounce of dignity. Taking it away from the people who saw their daughters married off at 13 and 14 to Lebanese men who then reduced them to sex slaves; or worse, the young girls who worked on farms who were forced into what the UN calls "survival sex" with Lebanese bosses who offered them jobs the moment they are too old to work in the fields. In Lebanon, girls can no longer work as farm hands the moment they become of marrying age.
Dignity is a word I heard a lot from those standing in line and looking around at the armed police who looked at them with scornful eyes. These people were returning to the possibility of arrest, torture, and for the men, almost certain enrolment into the army leaving their women vulnerable in Assad’s Syria. But such issues were airbrushed out of most of these people’s minds as they considered the risks and decided Syria was a better bet.
For some, it might have been about the army and how, with the war in its final stages, conscription was inevitable but not so hard, now that much of the fighting had already been done.
For 23-year-old Hani Abdel Aziz Sham, going back could not come sooner as he accepts going into the army is expected.
“I am not scared of the army enrolment, I am going there to serve and protect my country,” he said in a soft, almost robotic monotone, perhaps wary of Lebanese police overhearing. “I am so happy, not worried and am expecting a new life in Syria.”
“There’s a lot of people that wanna go back” he continues. “They are waiting for me to go just to be safe and then they will work on it."
"There’s a lot of people that left and they told me to register and everything is fine, there is no danger,” he adds, not particularly convincingly.
Next to him listening carefully is an older man who is more preoccupied with his anger towards the UN and tells me he is “relieved” to be going back. He, like the younger man, repeats that “many” in Lebonan are waiting for him to relay good news from Syria. Before the others apply for papers in Lebanon to return home, the scepticism is such. It’s as though many can’t believe that it’s so easy.
“There was a lot of nonchalance and the UN was not working to the fullest. I have a family and my leg broke – there is metal in my leg – and the UN did not help me, and they stopped everything, and the aid they were giving us” said Ghazal Husein Ghazal, 42, from Aleppo.
“I have four kids, there is no paycheck that would let you feed the kids and pay the rent” he adds.
“I know that most of the Syrians in Lebanon want to leave for Syria. And a lot are waiting for me to go, to be safe and be sure that the trip is safe” he says.
“No scary stories, there are people who reached there and everything is fine. You choose how you want to be treated, and for now, in Lebanon, I wasn't ill-treated. I will start my life all over again.”
Crash test dummies
And yet, there are scary stories which evidently are not reaching the Syrians in Lebanese camps. A number of reputable media outlets have reported in recent weeks on cases of false arrest and torture for some returning Syrians. And certainly, this corresponds with what many NGOs and the UNHCR itself has been saying for some time now. They are anxious to remove themselves from a plan crafted by Russia and the Syrian leader Assad and endorsed by a Hezbollah-friendly president in Lebanon that might throw refugees out of the frying pan into the fire.
Just recently the Irish Times reported on a small number of men who returned from Europe and were later found dead or missing. However, such stories don’t seem to be so relevant to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. For them, it’s too soon and no one yet has done the research to discover the fate of Lebanon’s returning refugees. But there’s certainly fear amongst them as many admit they are being crash test dummies for scores who stayed behind.
Kareem Chehayeb, a Lebanese journalist, believes that the horror stories are true and have not been inflated by Beirut-based Western journalists. Although he is cynical about any reporting which espouses that Syrians are forced to go back at the bequest of Assad.
“Many Syrians are just fed up and just want to go back but many are also too afraid to speak about their concerns. I’m sure that (torture and human rights abuse) are legitimate concerns,” he explains, “as I’m also personally aware of some Syrians who have returned to Aleppo and found their home doesn’t exist any more, just to be arrested, and intensely torture, and in some cases conscripted into the Syrian army obviously against their will.”
Chehab also thinks that many Syrians are prepared to be arrested and tortured in their own country rather than face the uncertainty and abhorrent misery of remaining in Lebanon as a refugee. “Even being tortured in your own country, there is a certain (faith in the) ‘better the devil you know, than the one you don’t’ mentality” he says.
UN mumbo jumbo
Getting any coherent comment from the UNHCR proves to be difficult. I tried to ask a number of simple yet frank questions to a spokeswoman who was flanked by three assistants standing by her side: What is the fate of these people? How concerned are you that some will be tortured? How much responsibility does the UN take for this? All my efforts had little of any consequence. What I got each time was a sort of computer-generated mumbo jumbo, speak-your-weight incoherent answer, which might as well have been in another language.
This was the only less erroneous answer to an entirely different question: “The ones which are returning are going back for various reasons – some are talking about the difficult situation in Lebanon, if we are to talk about the socio-economic situation, and others are saying they are returning for family reasons.”
Nasser Yassine, director of research at American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs, doesn’t blame the UN outright. He says that the failing is broader. “There’s a failure in the way internationally or multilaterally we deal with this humanitarian crisis,” He also points out, however, the numbers of returning refugees might suggest that the project itself is half-baked. “The (Lebanese) General Security claims that 30,000 refugees have so far returned, which may be an overestimation. But even if we accept this figure, it’s only 2 percent of the Syrian refugees, which is quite low,” he tells TRT World.
Yassine believes the real numbers are only around two to three thousand. He believes that the overall driving factor towards the return of refugees is a universal fatigue from donors, UN agencies, the Lebanese government and the refugees themselves and that everyone has given up.
New laws in Syria which critics argue could hand over land and houses of these refugees to Assad’s closest circle, changing the political and religious demographics of the country, is part of it. Extreme poverty is another factor.
“Last year, we found that around 77 percent of Syrian refugees had serious problems finding food with 53 percent living in substandard housing,” he says.
But fatigue from all the main players does seem to be part of it. Calls to both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch demanding comments regarding allegations of torture for the returning refugees did not produce any response from organisations, which claim to provide necessary help to Syrians in the region spamming journalists inboxes with press releases and videos.
“Everything will change”
But some return simply for healthcare. A curious quirk of the Syrian war and Lebanon’s overpriced health system means that Syrians can still get free healthcare back home.
A skittish 30-year-old woman, nervously looks behind me as she speaks. “I am afraid that they will put a reject on my papers because my mum is still here, that’s it,” she says quietly. “Everything will change, it's been six years since we were living in Lebanon ... Living in Lebanon was really hard, as the UN gave us little help. My husband stopped work and they didn’t help.”
“I am taking this trip mostly for treatment because there I couldn’t treat myself at all. I am not coming back, but in case I wanna see my mom, I’ll come back then leave back to my country” she adds.
Outside the entrance of the Lebanese General Security, I wait in the shade standing next to an attractive young woman in a red dress and pink headscarf. She is nervous. Carrying a baby of only a few months old, almost glued to her breast but with his head back. I’m afraid to ask the state of the child. The young mother frowns as she hears the police give orders.
Women panic as they board the bus, children cry. Cops try and look intimidating and dramatic but only look faintly preposterous as they argue with one another. There is confusion about which buses some women should be on as families are anxious about travelling together. Meanwhile, the small posse of Lebanese armed police standing at the entrance to the bus is intimidating even to journalists who don’t dare approach them.
One Syrian man in his forties looked on as women shouted at one another and a hullabaloo erupted over bags being loaded.
“I have an (army) enrolment, and I don’t want to go to Syria,” he told me casually as if talking about the weather. “We were out of Syria running away from blood spilt of those with and against the government. But many are staying because they are alright here, they have their own jobs and their bosses are good.”
“In Syria, they lost their houses or shops. That’s why they are still here. I no longer have a home in Syria.”