SOHR exclusive | Regime security services arrest and blackmail Syrians returning voluntarily to the “safe homeland” • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights
The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

SOHR exclusive | Regime security services arrest and blackmail Syrians returning voluntarily to the “safe homeland”

Refugees and displaced Syrians who have returned voluntarily to areas under the control of regime forces and their proxy militias, especially those who are descended from areas that experienced anti-regime demonstrations in the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, have become vulnerable to a series of violations, including arrests, torture, forcible disappearance, mistreatment and imposition of levies. Meanwhile, blackmailing of returnees by regime security services and military checkpoints has become prevalent. As soon as Syrian refugees arrive in regime-controlled areas, after passing through border crossings with neighbouring countries or arriving at airports, members stationed at military checkpoints impose taxes of thousands of Syrian pounds on the returnees, especially those coming from the gulf countries. Regime security services see those Syrian as having a lot of money, so they impose unlawful taxes on them. While these refugees find themselves forced to pay the required money, so that they can avoid arbitrary arrests.

 

It is worth noting that the “Danish Immigration Department” has issued a report recently highlighting facts and figures about the return of Syrian refugees from Arab countries and Europe to Syria in the past five years, as well as blatant violations by regime security services against them. The report stated that thousands of Syrian returnees were met by an “unclear” policy, as it was described in that report, adopted by regime security services.

 

The report showed that regime authorities called upon Syrian refugees in Arab and European countries to return and vowed to take all needed measures to ensure a safe return for them without prosecution or oppression. However, many reports have pointed out to the fact that the returnees have been subjected to scores of violations by regime security services. The violations covered even refugees and displaced Syrians who had struck reconciliation deals with regime security services before their return. Moreover, these violations were committed in light of the lack of monitoring and supervision of the situation of the returnees by international organisation, so the scale of violations remains unknown.

 

That report also pointed out to the fact that even officers in charge of checkpoints on the Syria border with neighbouring countries had the authority to decide the situation of the returnees. Furthermore, blackmail of the returnees by local authorities exacerbated the humanitarian situation and economic hardship further. The report aimed to provide new information about the Syrian regime authorities’ treatment with Syrian refugees returning voluntarily to Syria.

 

Information compiled in that report was obtained from several sources, such as security reports issued in late 2020 and October 2021. These reports included details about reconciliation deals struck by refugees, who returned recently to their homeland, with regime security services. In addition, the report depended on an interview with a human rights organisation in April 2022, and details obtained from other sources that preferred not to disclose their identity.

 

According to the report, the number of Syrians who fled from Syria or displaced internally to other areas beyond the regime’s control exceeded 13 million people: 5.7 million refugees in neighbouring countries and 6.9 million internally displaced persons.

 

Violations practiced against returnees are not confined to repression and harassment by regime security services at checkpoints, border crossings and airports, as regime soldiers stationed at military checkpoints in regime-controlled areas, which are located between the different provinces, also blackmail and rob returnees and consider them a source of income for these military checkpoints, especially since the members stationed at these checkpoints have the power to steal civilians’ possessions.

 

On May 23, SOHR published a report highlighting the involvement of the regime-backed 4th Division, led by Maher Al-Assad the brother of the Syrian regime president, into taking over money from refugees who returned recently to Syria, especially Syrians from east Syria, such as the provinces of Al-Raqqah and Deir Ezzor, by imposing unlawful taxes at the division’s military checkpoints. It is worth noting that most of the returnees came from gulf countries.

 

SOHR sources reported that members stationed at the 4th Division’s checkpoints seized money in possession of refugees returning recently to Syria under the pretext that “they did not deal in Syrian pound,” although the returnees entered Syria through official crossings on the border with Lebanon and Jordan. Moreover, the division’s members seize some goods and personal possessions, after men and women having been rigorously inspected. On the other hand, a taxi fare from the capital Damascus to Al-Raqqah province has approximated 600,000 SYP because of levies and taxes imposed on returnees at military checkpoints.

 

Speaking to SOHR, a human rights activist says, “the Syrian regime has deliberately humiliated and clamped down on refugees returning voluntarily to areas under its control in order to prove its claims that ‘these refugee have found themselves forced to return to regime-controlled areas after having opposed its policy.” Through these practices, the Syrian regime aimed mainly at humiliating regime opponents. Meanwhile, the money taken over from returnees is a major source of income for regime officers and soldiers, especially since the Syrian regime, which suffers from financial deficit, does not provide sufficient financial support to these officers and soldiers. As a result, the Syrian regime has empowered members stationed at military and security checkpoints to loot civilians in every way possible. On the other hand, the reasons behind the returning of Syrian refugees to Syria are not related to their loyalty to the Syrian regime, as some of those refugees have returned to be with their families in Syria, while others have faced difficulties and challenges which they could not cope with in the countries where they have sought refuge. The number of returnees is relatively small, and it is much smaller than the number of civilians fleeing from Syria every year, whether those who obtain official visas or sneak out of Syria with the help of smugglers. However, the Syrian regime overuse reports on the return of refugees with the aim of polishing its image in front of the international community. Ironically, most of the returnees find themselves forced to leave Syria again because of the lack of essential livelihood in areas under the control of regime forces and their proxy militias.”

 

The activist has called upon international and human rights organisations to focus and shed light on the issue of refugees who have recently returned to regime-controlled areas and the violations committed against them, including blackmail, thefts, kidnapping and killing under retaliating practices against regime opponents, although they had been permitted to return and have their security situations settled.

 

A woman known by her initials as A. B. from Homs and living in Lebanon told SOHR that she suffered from the ongoing displacement. The woman described the Syrian regime as a “criminal regime” that cannot be trusted, as she had lost her husband in mid 2020, when he died under torture in a regime prison, after having been arrested while he was on his way back to Syria. The woman said, “after a year of displacement in Deir Attiyyah area in Rif Dimashq, my husband and I decided to leave Syria to Lebanon. Six years after leaving Syria, my husband decided to return to our homeland. He had been promised by individuals inside Homs city not to be persecuted, and he was informed that the security situation in regime-controlled areas has been changed and became so much better. He was also told that regime government welcomed Syrian returnees.” The woman confirmed that her husband has not engaged into any military actions or demonstrations during the Syrian Revolution.

 

“After his return to Homs city, my husband was prevented by the 4th Division members stationed at a checkpoint in the neighbourhood where our house is located in Homs city centre, from reaching his house. Those members asked my husband to obtain a permission from any security branch to allow him access to his house. Obtaining such document usually took too much time, so my husband bribed the checkpoint’s members, giving them a sum of money estimated to be nearly 150 USD. A few hours later, my husband was arrested by the members of the same checkpoint, and he was taken to the Air-Force Intelligence Branch without being accused of any charges. A lawyer, who was hired to undertake my husband’s case, confirmed that my husband would be released. However, he remained in prison.”

 

When she was attempting to get a document, a “family record,” from the civil registry in mid 2020, the woman was informed of the death of her husband in a regime prison, where she received his death certificate, but his body has not been delivered.

 

In the past years, the Syrian regime has focused on encouraging Syrian refugees in Arab countries and Europe to return to Syria and have their security situations settled in order to make sure that they would not be persecuted. However, all reports and developments on the ground confirm that it is not safe for Syrian refugees to return to regime-controlled areas due to violations committed by regime security services, including blackmail and arbitrary arrests.