Hundreds of thousands of refugees are at risk of being pushed to return to Syria this year despite ongoing violence endangering the lives of civilians, leading humanitarian agencies warned in a report released today.
The report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Save the Children, Action Against Hunger, CARE International, Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) cautioned that misleading rhetoric about the reality in Syria is prompting neighbouring governments, as well as Europe and the United States, to consider closing their borders and forcing Syrian refugees back.
However, bombing is continuing to take place on a daily basis in many civilian areas, particularly in the northern provinces of Idlib and Hama, as well as the suburb of Eastern Ghouta outside of Damascus. Both regions were designated de-escalation zones in order to stem the bloodshed, a status the UN has called to be respected in the wake of an intensified assault in recent months.
Forces allied to the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have also been found to be in violation of international law on multiple occasions in using chemical weaponry against civilians and targeting hospitals treating the wounded. The regime has also been accused of implementing a "surrender or starve" strategy, imposing a siege on opposition-held areas and refusing to admit humanitarian aid, which according to Amnesty International, amounts to a war crime.
The report found that for every Syrian who returned home last year, three more were newly displaced.
"The majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced live under terrible conditions and want to return home, but their return must be informed, voluntary, safe, assisted and protected. Now, return would neither be safe nor voluntary for the vast majority who fled the war and the violence," NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland said in a statement.
Some 2.4 million Syrians were forced from their homes in the first nine months of 2017 and remain in the country according to the Whole of Syria Protection Needs Overview, and 629,000 more fled to neighbouring nations according to UNHCR figures.
The report found that wealthier countries have failed to meet their commitments to take in those fleeing the conflict; so far only three per cent of Syrian refugees have been resettled in developed countries.
Last year the UN High Commissioner for Refugees more than halved submissions for resettling Syrian refugees to rich countries compared with the previous year, largely due to US President Donald Trump's cap on refugees. However, politicians in Europe, notably in Denmark and Germany, are also now discussing the deportation of refugees back to Syria.
Neighbouring nations have also started to transport refugees back to Syria. Between January and October last year, around 250,000 people were forced back at the Turkish border, whilst Jordanian authorities reportedly deported about 400 refugees a month, often separating families in the process. In Lebanon, up to 10,000 refugees are estimated to have been returned to Syria by bus; it is unknown whether such a move was voluntary or forced.
The report comes amid new claims that Syrians fleeing the Turkish offensive on the Afrin region, have been turned away from the border with Turkish guards indiscriminately shooting at those attempting to cross into the country.
Of 16 refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW), 13 allege that Turkish border guards had shot towards them. Turkish officials have denied that such events took place, as the country has maintained an open door policy since the start of the war in 2011.
HRW called on the Turkish government to issue standard instructions to border guards at all crossing points that lethal force must not be used against asylum seekers and that no asylum seeker is to be mistreated.
The conflict in Syria, now entering its eighth year, has displaced over half the pre-war population; 6.1 million people are internally displaced, over five million are refugees in neighbouring countries, and more than a million have fled to Europe.