Shortly after Denmark began telling Syrian refugees that parts of Syria are "safe" and stripped them of their temporary protected status, I talked to a 31-year-old refugee who voluntarily returned to Syria from Jordan in December 2020. He told me otherwise. Someone in the Danish government should have talked to him before it gave Damascus a clean bill of health.
He told me he had lost his leg in an airstrike in Syria before he fled to Jordan for emergency medical care in 2014. When he returned to his hometown in Daraa, military authorities there told him to go to Damascus to obtain an exemption from military service because of his amputation. On his way to Damascus, he was stopped at a checkpoint and disappeared into the clutches of Syrian Military Intelligence for the next two-and-a-half months.
Officials tortured him, applying electric shocks to the stump of his leg and forcing him to witness them torture others – which continues to haunt him. To this day, he has no idea why he was detained. Deeply traumatized, he told me he only agreed to give Human Rights Watch an interview to show others what Syria is really like for returning refugees.
His story is emblematic of the 65 refugee accounts I collected and analyzed as a Human Rights Watch researcher for our new report on Syrian refugees returning home.
There have been increasing signs in recent weeks that governments and international institutions are ready to turn the page and bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "in from the cold," as one headline put it. Whatever the political and economic benefits other countries think normalization of relations with Damascus might bring, it is no surprise that many – after hosting Syrian refugees for as long as a decade – would welcome the green light to start sending Syrians home.
But inconvenient as the stories of refugees who returned and found themselves detained and tortured might be to governments eager to move on, they should not be ignored.
Refugees returning from Lebanon were persecuted as well. A 32-year-old refugee who voluntarily returned with his family from Lebanon to their home in Homs, Syria, was picked up by the Syrian Political Intelligence Agency the day after he got home. Agents tortured him, then passed him to four other intelligence agencies for yet more abuse, and then released him four months later.
He decided on his own to return to Syria. The Lebanese General Security Directorate, the agency responsible for the entry and exit of foreigners, facilitated his family's return, even processing the obligatory Syrian security clearance, which they told him came back approved. Since he had been cleared to return, he assumed he would be safe.
He showed me the burn scars he said were from electric shocks administered by his torturers in the first days after his arrest. No one told him what was happening or why he was wanted by the Political Security Agency. He was coerced to sign documents that accused him of "terrorist acts." Like many others I spoke with, he signed every document he was given, hoping it would mean an end to his torture. It did not.
He smuggled himself and his family back to Lebanon the minute he was released.
Anyone willing to look can see the Assad government's continual record of brutal suppression against his own people. The government that produced 5 million refugees is the same government that committed grave human rights abuses against its own citizens even before uprisings began. It is the same government that committed crimes against humanity during the conflict – the government that is still in place today without any indication that its abusive practices have ceased, and without accountability.
Based on evidence of widespread, ongoing abuses, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees continues to maintain that Syria is not safe and advises all refugee host nations not to force anyone to return. Denmark should heed that call, as well as a March 2021 European Union parliamentary resolution reminding member states that Syria is not safe for refugee return. But even more than UN agencies and European institutions, Denmark should heed the words of refugees like the ones I interviewed, rescind the decision to strip people from Damascus and the Damascus countryside of their temporary protection, and commit to suspending forcible returns of Syrians until they can truly return in safety and dignity.