Eight years on, Syria’s neighbours weary of war refugees

BEIRUT: After being suddenly deported from Turkey, Nidal Hussein stood dazed just inside war-tornĀ Syria, the latest victim of neighbouring countries growing tired of hosting millions of Syrian refugees.

“I left my wife and three children in Istanbul,” the 48-year-old said last month, after he was deported for not having permission to reside in the Turkish city.

“I will try to get back” into Turkey at any cost, he said.

Syria‘s conflict has displaced millions of people since 2011, and its neighbours have absorbed the majority of those fleeing abroad.

But today, with no political solution to the conflict in sight, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — who together host at least 5.2 million Syrian refugees — are increasingly seeing that population as a “burden”.

Rights groups have warned of mounting hate speech and increased government pressure on Syrians to return home, especially in Turkey and Lebanon.

While Jordan has not yet upped the pressure, it too has said the Syrian presence is weighing down its infrastructure and compounding its economic woes.

“With no clear-cut solutions for Syrian refugees to return, campaigns against them are increasing,” said analyst Nasser Yassin.

“Neighbouring countries have become exhausted,” said the head of the Beirut-based Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

Turkey hosts the most Syrian refugees in the world at 3.6 million.

In recent weeks, rights groups have denounced reports of hundreds of refugees being deported back into Syria as part of a crackdown on those without the right residency papers.

– ‘Hostile atmosphere’ –

“The hostile atmosphere towards Syrians… has worsened recently with a consensus among political parties and the media that Syrians are a source of problems,” said Yildiz Onen, spokesman for the Turkish campaign “We are all migrants”.

It “is opening the way to measures designed to make life difficult for migrants,” she said.

But “sending Syrians to a country that is still at war, particularly with the deadly bombardments in Idlib, is putting people in mortal danger,” she warned, referring to the ongoing Russia-backed campaign in northwest Syria.

Turkey’s government has flatly denied the reports, saying anyone returning to Syria — a total of 337,729 since the war began — has done so voluntarily. 

It also rejects claims Syrians were forced to sign return forms in Turkish that they did not understand.

Lebanon too insists some 325,000 returns to Syria since 2017 have all been voluntary, even as rights groups decry measures to make their lives increasingly complicated.

The Mediterranean country of some 4.5 million people says it hosts around 1.5 million Syrians, of which nearly a million are UN-registered refugees.

Since June, more than 3,600 Syrian families have seen their shelters demolished in the eastern region of Arsal, according to the municipality.

Homes made of anything other than timber and plastic sheeting are not allowed.

Last week, the army destroyed a further 350 structures in the north of the country and arrested dozens over not having residency documents, humanitarian groups said.

The labour ministry, meanwhile, is cracking down on foreign workers without a permit in a move activists says largely targets Syrians.

– ‘Electoral capital’ –

Human Rights Watch has denounced both Turkey’s deportation methods and Lebanon’s pressure on Syrians as illicit.

Yassin, the analyst, said political parties — especially in Turkey and Lebanon — were using anti-refugee rhetoric to build “political and electoral capital”.

In Lebanon, “it’s easy to point a finger at (Syrians) and use them as a scapegoat,” whether to explain a struggling economy, unemployment rates, or increasing hazards to the environment.

“But all that is gross exaggeration.”

Syrians in Jordan have faced less pressure, but Amman still says around 1.3 million Syrians it hosts — more than 660,000 of which are registered refugees — are a considerable weight.

Planning ministry spokesman Issam Majali said their presence “imposed several challenges and burdens on Jordan”, affecting security and services including healthcare or education.

And “we are facing the challenge of finding jobs for Syrian refugees and Jordanians,” he said.

In July last year, Damascus took back control of the main border crossing between Jordan and Syria, re-opening it after three years in October.

Since then, 25,000 Syrians have returned, the UN refugee agency says.

But even as the war winds down, with the Syrian government controlling around 60 percent of the country, rights groups have warned that conditions are still not ideal for returns.

Many fear “persecution and (lack of) security,” Yassin said, while others have little to return to.

“More than half of Syrian refugees in the region say they have been told their homes have been destroyed or are uninhabitable.”