The US and Russia have agreed on a ceasefire in southwest Syria, set to take effect on July 9, 2017. Russian Foreign Minister has announced. “In this zone [in southern Daraa, Quneitra and As-Suwayda provinces] the ceasefire regime will take effect. The US took an obligation that all the militant groups, located there, will comply with the ceasefire.” The ceasefire was agreed to by experts from Russia, the US and Jordan, who negotiated a memorandum on the creation of a de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria at talks in Jordan’s capital.(1)
The deal is separate from the draft agreement on de-escalation zones, which were to be created under a deal brokered earlier this year during Russia, Turkey and Iran-sponsored talks in Astana between the Syrian government and representatives of the armed opposition. “At first, the security around this de-escalation zone will be maintained with the help of Russian military police in coordination with the Jordanians and Americans.”
De-Escalation Zones in Syria: Not an Alternative for Refugees.
Today, the UN Secretary-General Antó-;-nio Guterres welcomed the announcement by the Governments of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Russian Federation and the United States of America of a de-escalation zone and arrangements to support a ceasefire and delivery of humanitarian assistance in south-west Syria. This is a significant step towards reducing violence and increasing humanitarian access across Syria, in line with the pursuit of the goal of a comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire, as endorsed by multiple Security Council resolutions.
The Secretary-General urges all countries to preserve the right for all Syrians to seek asylum and enjoy refugee protection until conditions are conducive for return in safety and dignity”. (2)
During the last few months, neighbouring countries were asking to return massive Syrian refugee populations to the four safe zones that the plan establishes in the western part of the country. Key leaders in Lebanon and Jordan are continuing to advocate for return but UN says: Pushing for the premature return of refugees in Syria is incredibly dangerous and short-sighted. (3)
Amnesty International: de-escalation zones must not mean refugees are forcibly returned:
In response to news for “de-escalation zones” in Syria, the Amnesty International issued a press release stating that de-escalation zones must not mean refugees are forcibly returned.
“Countries hosting Syrian refugees must not mistake this proposal for an opportunity to return those seeking refuge on their territories back into Syria.(4)
“The conflict in Syria continues to rage on, and people continue to be killed, tortured and arbitrarily detained every day. Refugees have a right under international law to be protected from being forcibly returned to their country for as long as they are genuinely at risk of serious human rights violations. States hosting refugees have an obligation not to forcibly return Syrian refugees to Syria where their lives and freedoms would be at risk.
“Nor should the ‘de-escalation zones’ be used to justify countries closing their borders and denying people fleeing conflict and persecution the right to seek asylum.”
UN warns that ‘conditions for refugees to return safely are not in place’:
Nearly half a million Syrians have returned to their homes since the beginning of the year, mainly to find family members and check on property, the UN refugee agency said. The agency said it had seen "a notable trend of spontaneous returns to and within Syria in 2017" but cautioned that conditions were "not yet in place" to guarantee their future safety. (5)
The UNHCR stressed on the need for planning for the return of the refugees. “It is crucial that refugee return planning is approached in a manner centered on refugees’ own intentions, concerns, and guided by a well-informed and free individual choice. Premature return induced by negative push factors and/or by misperceptions of security could have a devastating impact on refugees’ lives and indeed further destabilize Syria. Return should be voluntary and conducted in safety and dignity.” UNHCR stated that planning for return of refugees would cover multi-year engagement [2017 to 2020]. The geographic focus will be on returns from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, to be expanded to include countries from outside of the region based on discussions with concerned stakeholders as part of the planning process.
The UN will facilitate voluntary returns in safety and dignity to specific areas of Syria, where there is clear evidence that conditions and protection standards have been achieved.(6)
UN Conditions for safe return of refugees:
• The government provides guarantees that returnees will not face harassment, discrimination, arbitrary detention, physical threat´-or-prosecution on account of originating from an area previously under de facto control of another party to the conflict-;- for having left Syria illegally-;-´-or-for having lodged an asylum claim abroad.
• The government decrees an amnesty and sets out a clear legal framework for the treatment of those who have evaded compulsory military service´-or-deserted active service.
• The government commits to recognizing changes in returnees’ personal status occurred abroad (such as births, deaths, marriages, adoptions, divorces – including the extension of Syrian nationality to returnee children born abroad, and other measures to reduce potential cases of statelessness). All returnees to have access to civil registration and documentation and validation of education certificates obtained abroad.
Factors complicating a return to Syria: (7)
The latest UNHCR poll shows that only 6 percent of Syrian refugees want to return to Syria in the near future and 8 percent say they will never return. Some three-quarters are officially hesitant. The way in which these sentiments develop will, no doubt, depend on security conditions and the speed of reconstruction in Syria. However, -- as a general rule -- the more time refugees spend abroad, the less likely they are to return to their countries of origin.
The main obstacle to return remains lack of security. As long as the fighting keeps up, refugees will continue to flow out of the country -- and the return of significant numbers will be-limit-ed. Once the fighting is over, only amnesty could reassure the hundreds of thousands of "deserters." Corruption from Syrian officials is the second reason. For their part, men do not dare return to Syria for fear of being arrested arbitrarily and having to pay a large sum to be released.
Top United Nations representatives in Lebanon said it was still too early for large numbers of refugees to return to Syria, in light of recent developments in Lebanon and in the region. “It’s important to stick to international law. [The Syrian refugees’] return has to be dignified, voluntary and safe, and so far these conditions have not been met,” Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Philippe Lazzarini told journalists during a media briefing at the headquarters of the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon in Yarze.
Kaag seconded Lazzarini, saying the “conditions for return [to Syria] are not being met” and dismissed the idea of an imminent greater U.N. involvement in organizing safe transfers from Lebanon. “Our concern is to have sustained support for hosting countries to make sure that, in the period in which refugees are still hosted by countries like yours [Lebanon], sufficient and adequate support is made available to host communit[ies] as well as refugees,” Kaag said. (8)
A Report “Not without Dignity” on the Views of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon on Displacement, was prepared by the International Center of Transitional Justice.
Discussions about a future return of refugees and coexistence among groups currently at war in Syria must begin now, even in the face of ongoing violence and displacement. This report, based on interviews with refugees, makes it clear that the restoration of dignity will be important to creating the necessary conditions for return and peaceful coexistence — and building a stable post-war Syria one day. The reports recommends seven areas that should be included in efforts to assist refugees at present, and in the ongoing plans for their return to Syria once the conflict has concluded, including improved education and empowerment of children and women, better interaction between different social and ethnic groups, and widening the research into the experiences of Syrian refugees across the region.
1- US & Russia agree ceasefire in southwest Syria ‒-;- Lavrov: https://www.rt.com/news/395632-us-russia-ceasefire-syria/
2- UN Secretary-General Antó-;-nio Guterres: https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sgsm18607.doc.htm.
3- Making Syria Safe for Refugees, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2017-07-06/making-syria-safe-refugees
4- Amnesty International UK, Press releases: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/syria-de-escalation-zones-must-
5- Syrian refugees return home in the hundreds of thousands, UN says, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-refugees-
6- Thousands of Syrian refugees returning to unsafe country amid lack of international support:
7- A Half-Million Syrian Returnees? A Look Behind the Numbers: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-
8- Too early for refugees to return to Syria: U.N.
9- Not Without Dignity https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ_Report_Syria_NotWithoutDignity.pdf