In light of an ever growing pressure to send Syrian refugees back and in order to understand the realistic prospects of them returning, this study explores the concerns, expectations, and conditions for return for former male and female citizens of the city of Daraya.
The importance in terms of pre-war size, large-scale physical destruction of the city and its confessional and social fabric make Daraya an interesting place to study when it comes to prospects of refugees return particularly that it has been completely evacuated. After years of starvation and military attack, Daraya was the first Syrian city to be entirely depopulated through a forced evacuation of the remaining citizens in August 2016. While many cities had to submit to the regime’s forced displacement deals, the case of the city of Daraya stands out among the rest mainly because it has been under complete regime control for nearly two years now, yet so far none of its residents, whether civilians or rebels, have been allowed to return back.[i]
In order to understand the realistic prospects of refugees returning, it is necessary to take into consideration the reasons that forced them to leave their homes in the first place, which remain largely unaddressed.
Governmentally-driven forced mass-displacement is a defining feature of the Syrian conflict. The Syrian regime – aided by its allies Russia and Iran – has systematically used local evacuation deals – following years of military pressure through a strategy of siege, starvation, destruction of civilian housing and targeting of hospitals and schools, to deport hundreds of thousands of civilians who opposed it from rural and urban centres across the country. Likewise, its collective punishment policy through the use of large-scale indiscriminate attacks against civilians has also resulted in displacing millions.[ii]
Today there are almost 6.6 million people internally displaced as well as 5.6 more million refugees living abroad[iii] and there is no sign of an end to the conflict that would offer a political solution to the Syrian people. Nonetheless, governments and politicians across the world are already beginning to consider – or have already started – the repatriation of Syrian refugees.[iv] These tendencies were accelerated following the recent military gains achieved by the Syrian regime, which allowed it to restore its control over most of the urban areas in the country and further secure territories under its control. The Russian brokered de-escalation deals- most of which no longer exist- have also provided a deceptive impression that a political deal is within reach.
Moreover, the UN reports about ‘a notable trend in of spontaneous returns to and within Syria the first half of 2017,’[v] were presented as an evidence-based indication to support their argument that Syria has become safe for refugees to return.[vi] But such reports on returnees to Syria have failed to indicate the reasons – military and political – that kept Syrians from returning, as well as the conditions under which people are forced to go back. As for the latter, Human Rights Watch indicated that the cases of refoulement from Jordan peaked in early 2017, with up to 400 Syrians deported every month.[vii] Likewise, Lebanon has engaged in forcing thousands of Syrian refugees to go back through means of aggressive security operations and anti-refugee legal restrictions –outside any international framework and regulations.[viii] Turkey also announced the return of 200,000 Syrian refugees to their areas without transparency about how that process is happening.[ix] Therefore, the notion of “voluntary return” of those who returned to Syria is highly questionable and its presentation as “voluntary” is even misleading, as many are simply being forced back.
For the former, the existing risks facing those who had to return are also largely ignored.[x] Direct military action is not the single reason deterring refugees and IDPs from returning to their homes, but political and security concerns and conditions that make going back nearly impossible. The act of “return” from outside Syria therefore, cannot be considered equal to going back home. It is also important to highlight that upon returning many Syrian refuges become IDPs as they do not return to the location from which they had originally fled from. For example some of the refugees who returned from Lebanon ended up in Idlib instead of going back to their areas of origin in rural Damascus.[xi] Statistics on return from outside Syria thus are misleading.
To contribute to preventing the premature, or even forced, return of Syrian refugees to their country, this paper aims to explain to a non-Syrian audience the complexity of questions of return for the many whose homes were not only physically eliminated but whose very rights to exist in their home territory are in fact being denied. Towards that end, the paper conducts an in-depth case study on the city of Daraya to provide an overview of the course of the conflict from the start of peaceful protests in 2011 through to the destruction and depopulation of the whole city. The study also presents the personal stories of the city’s former residents as well as their concerns, conditions and priorities for return. Furthermore, it presents the current regime policies and practices that are preventing locals from returning.
The paper proceeds as follows: the first section gives background information on the city, its strategic importance and its unique history of non-violent activism. The second section tells the story of Daraya’s uprising and relays how the Assad regime employed various tactics in order to depopulate it through personal stories about people’s multiple displacements and the reasons behind them. The third section addresses the threats that prevent Daraya’s residents from going back and the pre-conditions needed for their return.