Syrian refugees returning home face poverty and danger

Syrian refugees returning home face poverty and danger

Speaking from Frankfurt by video call, Muhammad Fawzi Akkad explains how Turkey illegally expelled him from its territory to send him back to his (unrecognisable) home country. Here, he shows one of the photos that served as evidence in his case.

(Marga Zambrana)

In 2018, Muhammad Fawzi Akkad was detained by the Turkish Gendarmerie. They mistreated him and ultimately deported him from Turkey to Syria, where he survived for two weeks in an area controlled by jihadist groups.

On 21 June, the young man from Aleppo became the first Syrian refugee to win a court case against Turkey when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that the Eurasian country had illegally deported him, degraded him and forced him to sign a form for voluntary return to his country of origin.

In 2014, four years before his deportation, then teenage Akkad fled the conflict to Turkey, the country that hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world – 3.6 million, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Syrian civil war, which erupted in 2011 with a popular uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, displaced half of Syrian’s population of 24 million and triggered a refugee crisis, with 5.6 million Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and mainland Europe.

The conflict has left the country divided and in ruins. At least 306,887 Syrians are dead and over 130,000 are missing.

Akkad’s open and welcoming disposition, his mastery of English and Turkish and his passion for music have earned him many close friendships over his four years in Istanbul. In June 2018, he made one of many attempts to cross the border into Greece, where he ultimately planned to travel to Germany to reunite with his family. Like tens of thousands of his fellow Syrians, he paid for the services of an illegal Turkish smuggler.

Now in Frankfurt and aged 25, Akkad tells Equal Times about his shocking and tragically absurd arrest six years ago in Edirne, a town on the border with Greece.

“They took away our mobile phones and our papers. We were taken to a police station at the border where we were held for two days. We slept in a container and were fed beans and water. I was sick to my stomach.”

When he finally got his mobile phone back, Akkad, a social media enthusiast, contacted his friends in Istanbul and began recording everything that happened to him, evidence that would later prove instrumental his victory before the court in Strasbourg.

After the group of a dozen Syrians were taken to a police station in Edirne, two police officers demanded that Akkad hand over the Turkish identification document establishing his “temporary protection” status. “I asked them why they wanted it and they slapped me in the face. They shouted ‘You want to leave Turkey? You want to go to Greece? Don’t you like Turkey? Turkey doesn’t want you either!’ They took my Turkish ID, tore it up and told me it was cancelled. ‘We’re going to send you to Bashar al-Assad, back to the regime.’ I thought that would be the end of my life.”

The group was handcuffed and forced onto a bus that took them from Edirne to Hatay, on the Syrian border. In Hatay, Turkish authorities forced Akkad to sign a document stating that his return to Syria was voluntary. “They told me that if I didn’t sign I would spend months in that detention centre with members of Islamic State.” After signing, he was taken to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, where he took selfies under a sign reading “Welcome to Syria.”

From there, he was transferred to Sarmada in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, controlled by radical Islamic groups linked to al-Qaeda. “Within five minutes a van appeared and the people inside started shouting at us. They were Jabhat al-Nusra soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs. We asked them who they were and they told us to shut our mouths and get in the van. All I thought was: ‘Oh shit,’” he recalls. He had recognised the Islamist jihadist group, which the previous year had renamed itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in an unsuccessful attempt to disassociate itself from al-Qaeda, considered to be a terrorist group by the United States State Department.

The members of HTS had “long beards and were dressed in white.” They registered Akkad and the other deportees on their arrival, making jokes about their European hairstyles and ripped jeans. “One of them laughed and asked me if I was planning on going around Idlib looking like that. I went out to smoke a cigarette but they told me it was forbidden in their territory.” He finally found a safe place to stay. When he went out onto the street the next morning, he barely recognised his country. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Everyone spoke English, some with British accents. There were white people, even Chinese people,” he recalls, describing the foreign fighters who had joined the radical groups.

“There were no Syrians. These foreigners banned the locals from smoking their water pipes. There was only electricity for a couple of hours a day. At six o’clock in the evening the shelling started. At midnight, the shooting started.

He hid out in his rented room for two weeks and watched other Syrians and smugglers crossing the border. He finally found some who seemed trustworthy and with the help of his friends in Istanbul, he was able to hire a smuggler and return to the city on the Bosphorus. Despite his panic at having landed in the hands of Islamic radicals, Akkad is grateful that he did not end up in any of the areas controlled by the Assad regime.

After having taken back and pacified most of the now devastated and divided country with an iron fist, Syrian regime forces, with Russian support, continue to bomb both radical groups and civilian targets in Idlib. But the government’s reassertion of control over most of the country has not made it safe for refugees to return home.

Akkad’s story is one of the few first-hand accounts of someone being deported to an area controlled by resistance groups. Most returnees arrive in regime-controlled territory, where they risk torture and death.

Choosing between destitution, death by bombing or disappearance at the hands of the regime

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) records the testimonies of 65 Syrians who voluntarily returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021. Of those interviewed, 21 reported arbitrary arrests and detentions (their own or those of family members), 13 reported torture, five reported extrajudicial killings, 17 reported disappearances and one reported sexual violence. Upon return, many find their homes reduced to rubble and their property seized. All of them find a country in such deep misery that survival there seems impossible.

“Some stories remain etched in my memory,” Nadia Hardman, who researched and wrote the HRW report, tells Equal Times. One story is that of Shadi, a 31-year-old disabled man from Daraa “who fled to Jordan after losing his leg in a bombing. He then decided to come back and tried to get an exemption from being drafted into military service, which you can get if you have a disability,” she explains. “He was told to go to the main office in Damascus. But he was arrested at a checkpoint, humiliated and tortured at different detention centres. We are talking about someone who had an obvious disability. I don’t quite know what level of depravity you have to reach to do something like that. He was an extremely humble person.”

HRW’s research focuses on Syrians who have returned voluntarily from Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon hosts the second largest number of Syrian refugees, with 831,000 living within its borders, followed by Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf have taken in virtually no Syrian refugees, though they have been generous with humanitarian aid for those who have fled to neighbouring countries. In Europe, the main host countries have been Germany, Sweden, Austria, Greece and the Netherlands.

Refugees’ reasons for returning to Syria include the desire to be reunited with family, pressures and rising cost of living in their host countries, and access to property or housing. Their main reason for not returning is lack of safety and security, followed by lack of livelihoods, basic services, adequate housing and the risk of being recruited into military service.

This is according to UNHCR’s latest report (dated August 2022), which documents a total of 336,496 Syrians who returned, presumably voluntarily, from neighbouring host countries between 2016 and 2022.

“Syria is not safe for refugees to return to,” says Hardman of HRW. “The conditions that forced these Syrians to flee their country persist. President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, his security agencies continue to commit serious human rights abuses with impunity.” As Hardman explains, any returnee can fall victim to these abuses: “There is no way to predict who might disappear or be tortured. Many of the people we spoke with had security clearance from the regime when they returned, had no ties to the opposition, and were nevertheless detained, tortured or killed.”

Despite the evidence, Turkish authorities deny that Akkad was illegally deported, although similar cases have been reported in the international press and a Syrian NGO claims that most returns from Turkey are forced. According to UNHCR, more than 146,000 Syrians have returned from Turkey; Ankara, however, claims that it is 500,000.

While President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has supported the Syrian opposition and maintained an open-door policy towards refugees since the beginning of the conflict, some observers have criticised him for using them as a bargaining chip for his own interests. In 2015, he negotiated €3 billion in aid with the EU after threatening to allow refugees to cross into Europe.

Turkey’s sharp economic downturn has exacerbated xenophobic sentiments against Syrians and the Turkish opposition is capitalising on this in the run-up to the June 2023 presidential elections. In the hopes of regaining his fragile majority, Erdoğan, whose poll numbers are at a historic low, is playing to these sentiments with announcements such as his plan to send one million refugees to Turkish-controlled territory in northern Syria.

The post-pandemic economic recession and energy crisis have hit the region’s host countries hard. Ninety per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are currently unable to meet their basic needs. In addition, many host countries are introducing measures to force Syrian refugees to return home. These include European countries such as Denmark and Sweden, which have announced the withdrawal of temporary protection for Syrian refugees.

The political irony is that in order to officially deport Syrian refugees, these countries require diplomatic ties with Damascus, which they broke off when the al-Assad regime violently quelled pro-democracy protests at the beginning of the uprising. The leaders of several host countries, including Erdoğan, are now exploring the possibility of reestablishing diplomatic ties.

Akkad does not believe that the Turkish government will ever pay him the fine of more than €12,000 imposed by the Strasbourg court. But he is satisfied with the ruling: “Every day Syrians are deported and no one has the courage to speak up. I may have been the first to denounce these deportations but more people will do so. Syrians need justice,” he says.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson