Syria’s war has not concluded but for many it is convenient to pretend that it has. To those in the regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is necessary to present the government’s campaign of pacification as having produced peace. For foreign countries that wish to cease their programmes assisting the Syrian people, any opportunity to have their wish fulfilled is seized.
Countries that border Syria and host millions of displaced Syrians – and where refugees are unpopular – gladly used intervals in fighting to justify sending thousands back to live in a war zone under the pretence that it has become safe.
Lebanon has hosted 1.5 million Syrians refugees for more than five years. It borders Syria and stories of the two countries’ supposed ‘brotherhood’ have circulated widely. Brotherhood and hospitality have their limits, however.
Lebanese authorities have stated that Syrians who enter the country without official documentation will be deported. Syrians who have arrived since then were met with thorough enforcement of that declaration, with many returned from Beirut airport two days after the announcement last April.
The Lebanese state has instituted what it terms ‘voluntary returns’, which 170,000 Syrians have done in the past two years.
Official sanction is the standard for hospitality and the new bar to clear. Lebanese authorities began to demolish refugee settlements made of permanent materials last month. They did this because of the implication allowing the structures to stand would have on how long refugees felt they could stay.
In June, refugees were told they must, on their own initiative, demolish structures built in contravention of the order and many did. In a show of firmness, concrete buildings in Arsal that were not taken down were bulldozed at the beginning of July.
More significant than forcing refugees into homes built less durably is making them poorer, notably by preventing them from working. Those who have registered as refugees with the United Nations are prohibited from doing paid work but they must live and support their families so many do anyway, taking technically illegal work.
More than 90 per cent of Syrians who work, the International Labour Organisation said, do so without a legal contract. Raids by Lebanese authorities have sanctioned firms that employ Syrians without adequate documentation and closed businesses that Syrians own.
The idea of Syrians decreasing the median wage in Lebanon or taking jobs from Lebanese workers is a potent one and forms the basis of much political hostility that Syrians face. Amid a tide of anti-refugee rhetoric, hundreds of Syrians have been deported from Lebanon to Syria since May.
In Turkey, similar rhetorical pressure has built against the Syrians resident in the country. Representatives of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) have called Syrians a drain and a ‘trauma’.
More than 1,000 Syrian men recently received deportation orders from Turkey, with the justification that those deported are criminals or lack proper documentation. Many, however, meet neither specification.
Most Syrians in Turkey and Lebanon wish to return to the country of their birth but they know Syria is not safe. There is still war in the north, with various ceasefires around Idlib, Hama and Aleppo provinces failing to last.
The most recent attempt at a ceasefire failed this month, with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a powerful jihadist militia, declining to enforce its specifications and the regime continuing its aerial campaign and advancing on the ground into Idlib province.
Hundreds of fighters are killed each week and civilians are frequently targets not only of straightened circumstances and privation but also of direct attack.
Civilians also are threatened by the presence of terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, and violence in areas occupied by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime. More visibly, civilians are targeted by bombing from regime and Russian airpower in rebel-held portions of the country.
Non-military targets such as hospitals and clinics have been repeatedly bombed, as well as residential and commercial areas of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama.
The threat of regime dominance is a prospect that unnerves refugees who may soon be impelled to return to a Syria under the control of a hostile state.
Many refugees took part in the political opposition during the beginning stages of the Syrian war. They face imprisonment and possibly torture and death in regime prisons or summary violence from jihadist fighters who fear legitimate political opposition and who have killed activists in Idlib in recent months.
Most Syrian refugees abroad do not seek permanent residence. They want only safe harbour until the civil conflict in their native land ends.
However, peace in Syria seems far away and safety an illusion, even as Syrian refugees are deported from neighbouring countries under the false promise that they will be safe in a homeland that is still very much at war.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.