Berlin: Later this week, the interior ministers of the German states will be discussing, and voting on, a proposal to be begin forcibly repatriating Syrian refugees once their asylum status lapses — as early as next June. If they agree, it would then be up to the federal interior ministry to decide whether parts of Syria are safe for return. That is considered unlikely, at least for the moment.
But as Syrian President Bashar Al Assad mops up remaining opposition to his rule, and as the threat from Daesh melts away, Germany and other European states will have to judge — far sooner than they expected to — whether to send Syrians back to their devastated homeland, or to some portion of it. Given the political pressures, there is no reason to assume that the decision will be based on the best interests of the refugees themselves.
The obligation of states is spelt out clearly in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which stipulates that an individual may not be returned if “his life or freedom may be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or opinion.”
Guidelines issued by the UN High Commission on Refugees dictate that, once granted asylum, refugees may be forcibly returned only when conditions in their home have changed fundamentally and enduringly, in such a way as to ensure a guarantee of protection to formerly persecuted people.
Germany has some 200,000 Afghan asylum seekers, but about 600,000 Syrians. And while Afghanistan’s civil war only grows worse, Bashar Al Assad is likely to regain his grip on most or even all of the country after waging a pitiless war that has led to around 400,000 deaths. The kinds of fundamental changes across the country required by the UNHCR for safe return may not occur for a generation, but European states looking to reduce political pressure caused by anger over refugees and migrants may treat the end of widespread hostilities as a good enough standard.
Many Syrian refugees have received asylum for one year, to be renewed as needed. Some of Germany’s provincial interior ministers would like to shorten the period to six months in order to permit expulsions starting in June. They would start with those accused of crimes in Europe, and then perhaps begin deporting broader groups. Like Afghans, Syrians would be sent to zones deemed safe, or to “de-escalation zones” like Idlib province governed by fragile ceasefire agreements.
Would it be acceptable to compel, say, families who have fled Aleppo to return to a home that is flattened but no longer violent? The answer is surely no, both for legal and for moral reasons. As Bill Frelick, the director of refugee rights at Human Rights Watch points out, while in a hearing for refugee status the burden of proof lies with the asylum seeker, forcible repatriation shifts the burden to the state in question. Have the conditions that compelled flight changed fundamentally and enduringly? In Syria, the threat comes from the Al Assad regime itself.
Even though barrel bombs have stopped falling on Aleppo, returnees would plainly be at risk of persecution and death from the regime and its militias. And no part of Syria can be deemed safe so long as Assad aspires to regain total control. A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute sensibly calls for an end to forced repatriation to all countries in conflict.
The deus ex machina of all refugee situations is voluntary return. Normally one knows that return is safe when refugees go back on their own — at first tentatively and then, once the news spreads, in a flood. But that’s true only when refugees are perched across the border. Most Afghans returned home from Pakistan when the Taliban was routed; few of the Vietnamese boat people in the West went back when conditions improved. In the ensuing years, they had stitched their lives into a new and generally rewarding culture. One can imagine a situation some number of years from now — who knows how many — in which Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey start to return, but those in Europe stay put. And they will stay put. The 2015 refugees are there to stay, unless driven out.