A group of international humanitarian NGOs is sounding the alarm over the forced return of Syrian refugees to their war-torn homeland where conflict still rages in many parts of the country, while others have sustained so much damage to basic civilian infrastructure, they’ve become virtually uninhabitable.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees are at risk of being pushed to return to Syria in 2018, despite ongoing violence, bombing and shelling that are endangering the lives of civilians, these leading humanitarian agencies warn in a report released Monday.
The report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Save the Children, Action Against Hunger, CARE International, Danish Refugee Council (DRC), and International Rescue Committee (IRC) warns that governments in Europe, the United States and Syria’s immediate neighbours are closing borders and forcing Syrian refugees back, putting many lives at risk.
Despite recent gains by the Syrian regime against Islamic State and other rebel groups and the establishment of so-called de-escalation zones, the country is still volatile and dangerous as recent upsurge in fighting in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta demonstrate, the NGOs warn.
“The violence that has displaced Syrians both internally and to neighbouring countries continues and has actually increased in some places inside Syria,” said Roula K. a humanitarian adviser with Save the Children Canada (we’re not using her full last name for security reasons as she still has family inside Syria and is worried about possible reprisals). “Many refugees who have returned or been pushed back to return to some parts of Syria have found themselves in the middle of a major military offensive with heavy bombing and mass displacement again.”
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Thousands of schools, hospitals, water and sanitation plants have been destroyed, which means that children that return struggle to access education, health care and basic services, the report said.
“No child should have to return home before it is safe,” said in a statement Bill Chambers, president and CEO of Save the Children. “Children have told us of the deep psychological wounds they carry after enduring years of war. Many children are still having nightmares. Once there is peace, the homes and schools of Syria must be rebuilt before children return.”
The report found that for every returnee there were three more newly displaced because of the violence.
While the number of Syrians returning rose from 560,000 to 721,000 between 2016 and 2017, some 2.4 million people in Syria fled their homes in the first nine months of 2017. The UN estimates a further 1.5 million Syrians will be displaced in 2018.
“We want all warring parties to stop targeting civilian areas, to protect schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure,” K. said.
The parties to the conflict should also work towards a political solution that would allow for the safe and dignified return of refugees, K. said.
“We also call on countries hosting Syrian refugees not to push them to return nor deport them, but rather to offer them a life with dignity and that means ensuring that refugees would have legal protection have the right to work and can send their children to school,” she said.
Officials at Global Affairs Canada said Ottawa supports “voluntary, sustainable returns for refugees, in safety and dignity.”
“Canada agrees that the current situation inside Syria is not conducive to this,” Amy Mills, a Global Affairs spokesperson, told Radio Canada International in a statement.
Canada is delivering $1.1 billion in humanitarian and development assistance in the Middle East over three years, including $840 million in humanitarian assistance funding and $270 million for longer-term development assistance, Mills said.
This includes funding to meet the needs of crisis-affected refugee and host populations, including in emergency education and child protection, Mills said.