Syrian security forces have subjected Syrians who returned home after seeking refuge abroad to detention, disappearance and torture, including sexual violence, Amnesty International said today. In a new report, “You’re going to your death”, the organization documented a catalogue of horrific violations committed by Syrian intelligence officers against 66 returnees, including 13 children. Among these violations, Amnesty International documented five cases whereby detainees had died in custody after returning to Syria, while the fate of 17 forcibly disappeared people remains unknown.
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You’re going to your death
With a number of states – including Denmark, Sweden and Turkey – restricting protection and putting pressure on refugees from Syria to go home, the harrowing testimony in Amnesty International’s report is proof that no part of Syria is safe to return to. Returnees told Amnesty International that intelligence officers explicitly targeted them for their decision to flee Syria, accusing them of disloyalty or “terrorism.”
“Military hostilities may have subsided, but the Syrian government’s propensity for egregious human rights violations has not. The torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary or unlawful detention which forced many Syrians to seek asylum abroad are as rife as ever in Syria today. What’s more, the very fact of having fled Syria is enough to put returnees at risk of being targeted by authorities,” said Marie Forestier, Researcher on Refugee and Migrants Rights at Amnesty International.
“Any government claiming Syria is now safe is wilfully ignoring the horrific reality on the ground, leaving refugees once again fearing for their lives. We are urging European governments to grant refugee status to people from Syria, and immediately halt any practice directly or indirectly forcing people to return to Syria. The governments of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan must protect Syrian refugees from deportation or any other forcible return, in line with their international obligations.”
Amnesty International’s report documents serious human rights violations committed by the Syrian government against refugees who returned to Syria from Lebanon, Rukban (an informal settlement between the Jordanian and Syrian borders), France, Germany, Turkey, Jordan and UAE, between mid-2017 and spring 2021, based on interviews with 41 Syrians, including returnees and their relatives and friends, as well as lawyers, humanitarian workers and Syria experts.
Targeted for fleeing the country
The authorities have targeted returnees to Syria, accusing those who fled the country of treason or supporting “terrorism”. Amnesty documented 24 cases where men, women and children were targeted as a direct result of these perceptions, and subjected to human rights violations including rape or other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary or unlawful detention, and torture or other ill-treatment. In some cases returnees were targeted simply because they came from parts of Syria that had been under opposition control.
For example, security members arrested Karim* four days after he returned from Lebanon to his village in Homs province. Karim recounted one interrogation which took place during his six-and-a-half months of detention:
“[An officer] said: ’You came to ruin the country and complete what you started before you left.’ I said that I was coming to my home country, to my village[…]They [security officials] told me that I’m a terrorist because I’m from [a renowned pro-opposition village].
Karim told Amnesty International that he was tortured during detention:
“After I was released, I couldn’t see anyone who visited me for five months. I was too scared to speak to anyone. I had nightmares, hallucinations. I was talking during my sleep. I used to wake up crying and scared. I’m disabled because the nerves of my right hand are damaged due to [torture]. Some of the discs of my back are also damaged.”
The punishments for those who fall under government suspicion are brutal. Amnesty International documented 14 cases of sexual violence committed by security forces, including seven cases of rape, committed against five women, a teenage boy and a five-year-old girl. Sexual violence took place at border crossings or in detention centres, during questioning. Testimonies are consistent with well-documented patterns of sexual violence and rape committed against civilians and detainees during the conflict by pro-government forces.
When Noor* returned from Lebanon she was stopped at the border by a security officer who said:
“Why did you leave Syria? Because you don’t like Bashar al-Assad and you don’t like Syria? You’re a terrorist … Syria is not a hotel that you leave and return to when you want.”
The officer subsequently raped Noor and her five-year old daughter in a small room used for interrogation at the border crossing.
Yasmin* returned from Lebanon with her teenage son and three-year old daughter. Security forces arrested them immediately at the border crossing and accused Yasmin of spying for a foreign country. Yasmin and her children were transferred to an intelligence detention centre, where they were detained for 29 hours. Intelligence officers raped Yasmin, and took her son to another room where they raped him with an object.
The officer who raped Yasmin said:
“This is to welcome you to your country. If you get out of Syria again and come back again, we will welcome you in a bigger way. We are trying to humiliate you and your son. You will not forget [this] humiliation in all your life.”
Some families chose for women to return to Syria ahead of their husbands, assuming they would be less likely to be arrested than men – partly because women are not subject to compulsory military service.
However, Amnesty International documented the arbitrary or unlawful detention of 13 women, some of whom were interrogated about their male relatives, and of ten children, aged between three weeks old and 16 years old, who were arrested along with their mothers. Security forces subjected five children to torture and other-ill treatment. Women are as much at risk as men when they return to Syria, and should therefore be granted the same level of protection.
Torture and enforced disappearance
In total, Amnesty International documented 59 cases of men, women and children who were arbitrarily detained after returning to Syria, most frequently following broad accusations of “terrorism”. In 33 cases, returnees were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment during detention or interrogation. Intelligence officers used torture to coerce detainees into confessing to alleged crimes, to punish them for allegedly committing crimes, or to punish them for alleged opposition to the government.
Yasin* was arrested at a checkpoint just after he crossed the border with Lebanon, and spent four months in prison.
He said: “I don’t know how much time I spent being tortured in this room[…] Sometimes, when [an agent] hit me, I counted every hit. Sometimes it reached 50 or 60 and I passed out. Once it reached 100.”
Ismael*, who was detained in four different intelligence branches over three and a half months, said:
“They electrocuted me between the eyes. I felt my whole brain was shaking[…] I wished I would die. I didn’t know if it was the morning or the night. I wasn’t able to stand on my feet anymore, even to go to interrogation. They had to hold me to take me there and bring me back.”
Amnesty recorded 27 cases of enforced disappearance. In five cases, authorities eventually informed families that their disappeared relatives had died in custody; five were eventually released; the fate of the other 17 people remains unknown.
Ola*, who returned from Lebanon with her brother in 2019, said security forces had arrested her brother at the border crossing. In the following weeks, they also visited Ola at her home and interrogated her about her reasons for leaving and returning to Syria.
“They see us as terrorists because we left to Lebanon,” Ola said.
Five months later, authorities informed Ola’s family that her brother had died in detention.
Ibrahim* told Amnesty that his cousin, alongside his wife and their three young children, aged 2, 4 and 8 years old, had been arrested upon returning from France in 2019. At the time of writing, the family has been subjected to enforced disappearance for two years and eight months.
Amnesty documented 27 cases where returnees were detained as a means of extortion, with families paying on average between 3 and 5 million Syrian pounds (the equivalent of USD 1,200 to USD 27,000) for the release of their relatives.
No part of Syria is safe
The level of fighting in Syria has decreased significantly in the past three years, with the Syrian government now controlling more than 70% of the country. Against this backdrop, the Syrian authorities have publicly encouraged refugees to return home, while several host countries have begun to reconsider the protection they offer to people from Syria. In Lebanon and Turkey, where many refugees face dire living conditions and discrimination, governments have put increasing pressure on Syrians to return.
In Europe, Denmark and Sweden have reassessed residency permits of asylum-seekers who come from regions they consider safe for return, including Damascus and the surrounding countryside. It is notable however, that a third of the cases documented in this report involve human rights violations that took place in Damascus or the Damascus area.
Based on the findings in its report, Amnesty International concludes that no part of Syria is safe for returnees to go back to. In addition, people who have left Syria since the beginning of the conflict are at real risk of suffering persecution upon return, on account of perceptions about their political opinions or simply as punishment for having fled the country.
“The Assad government has attempted to depict Syria as a country in recovery. The reality is that Syrian authorities are still perpetrating the widespread and systematic human rights violations that contributed to millions of people seeking safety abroad,” said Marie Forestier.
“We call on Syrian authorities to ensure the protection of returnees and to end human rights violations against them, as well as ensuring the respect, protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all people in Syria. Countries hosting Syrian refugees must continue to provide refuge, and ensure ongoing protection from the Syrian government’s atrocities.”