The Vicious Fate Awaiting Syrian Refugees Who Go Home

A new report finds that returnees are being tortured, detained, raped, and killed by the Assad regime.

There’s still a war going on in Syria. But it’s a fact of journalism that stories that are “still” happening don’t sell papers—or get clicks. After more than 10 years of a vicious civil war, there seems to be nearly nothing that will provoke widespread interest or outrage anymore. From 2011 to 2015, readers worldwide were saturated with coverage of the beleaguered country. Now, they appear to be desensitized to its implosion.

Yet, with or without media scrutiny, the extreme cruelty of the Assad regime continues unabated. A new report from Amnesty International contains evidence that Syrians whom foreign governments like Turkey and Denmark are now encouraging to go home are being brutalized when they do. These Syrians are being tortured, imprisoned, and raped. Some simply disappear upon their return.

Amnesty has documented 66 cases of Syrians who have been abused after arriving back in their home country. The returnees are treated as traitors by men—and they are all men—who long ago proved that their barbarity knows no bounds. In the report, released Tuesday, the group said Syrian authorities “perceive individuals who left the country as generally supportive of the opposition and/or armed groups.”

These few dozen documented cases of abuse, said Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, represent only a fraction of the savagery going on. “We don’t know the real numbers,” he told me as we commiserated about the unreliability of counting acts of violence in war. The numbers are always higher than you think. A common refrain for conflict-zone reporters is that, for every one woman raped, there are eight to 10 more who go uncounted.

The more than 6.5 million Syrians who have fled the country since the conflict began are hosted in places that can barely support their own citizens, such as Lebanon, which is in full economic collapse. Refugees I’ve met in multiple trips to the region and in European countries, like Italy and Greece, talk about living with indignities, such as being unable to work legally, feeling forced to marry off their daughters so they can support the rest of their families, or having to rely on charity for everything they own or eat. But these ignominies are bearable next to what appears to be the violent or deadly price of returning to Syria.

Alongside the beatings and forced disappearances, Amnesty recorded multiple stories of women returnees raped in front of their children, or vice versa, sometimes with objects like sticks or pipes. A woman named Noor told the organization that Syrian security officials at a border crossing between Lebanon and Syria not only raped her; they raped her five-year-old daughter, too.

The men accused Noor of sending weapons to the Syria opposition, and of prostituting herself (unfortunately not a rare accusation among men who claim they prize a woman’s purity above all else). They “inserted a pen in her bottom and her daughter’s bottom” and photographed the two naked before releasing them, Amnesty said.

What was done to this mother and daughter typifies the horrors long inflicted by the regime, and complements what I learned while reporting in the region during the first half of the war.

From 2011 to 2014, I ran a live, crowdsourced map of sexualized violence in Syria. A project at the Women’s Media Center, the map—the first ever to try to capture data on sexualized violence in war in real time—was produced in conjunction with epidemiologists at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. We reported multiple cases of rape by the regime that involved sexual torture, including using cigarettes on people’s genitals, and gang rape. The new reports read like yet another chapter in a horrendously long and terrifying book.

Nearly every reporter and human rights advocate I knew in those years was knocked flat by what was happening in Syria. In fact, it’s rare to find the same people still working on the issues around this war—most of us burned out at some point. Imagine what it is like for the people actually living this day to day.

“The thing that defines the Syrian government is their ability to torture anybody,” Nassif said in an interview about the returnees. “You couldn’t just let them in and leave them alone. You had to do something life-altering and traumatic. The depravity of this government that just doesn’t care—it’s unusually cruel in a world that is unusually cruel.”

In a region that breeds terrorist boogeymen in the minds of the West, it looks like one of the original boogeymen-cum-dictators himself, Bashar al-Assad, has embraced such a mythology, and he’s projecting such stories on innocent civilians.

“They consider all the refugees who left Syria to be terrorists,” Maryam, 18, told Amnesty of Assad’s men. Upon her return to Syria in mid-2019, her husband was arrested and disappeared. She believes he died in prison. “Some are released, and some are not,” she said.

For its part, the Syrian government has been urging citizens to return since 2018, falsely claiming that there would be amnesty for men who defected from the regime’s compulsory military service. While Assad has long thrown as many words as he can at the humanitarian wall to see what will stick, his actions have left little room for ambiguity.

In reality, there is no part of Syria that is safe for returnees to go back to, regardless of the fantasy spun by the regime, its allies, such as Russia or the UAE, or neighboring or European countries that align themselves with the jingoistic right. With the added economic squeeze caused by the pandemic, Syrian refugees have worn out their welcome around the world. And to justify their expulsions, the world appears willing to maintain a fiction that parts of Syria are now at peace.

“People were told they’re safe,” Nassif said. “They’ve been lied to.”

Refugees have usually fled Syria in the darkness of night. As they are often without papers, their existence outside the country has long been tenuous. At this point, however, the stalemate of the civil war has prompted xenophobes to offer what Nassif calls “soft encouragement” for refugees to go home. (Then there are the forcible returns, which have been going on for years in Turkey and elsewhere.) Governments like Denmark’s and Sweden’s have been pushing Damascus, in particular, as a “safe” city that can be repopulated. But a full third of the people Amnesty interviewed for its report were abused after returning to Damascus or the surrounding area.

This new information about returnees needs to be shared widely so that Syrians, who often have little access to solid updates about their own country, are not pushed back into the arms of torturers and killers. In the meantime, for those who have been convinced that their lives will be better if they can only go home, the welcome they receive is enough to shove them back out again. Returnees interviewed by Amnesty “who have been able to flee have departed Syria once again and become refugees again,” the researchers found.

And around it goes for Syrians, a people forgotten—and lied to—amid an unending mire of global crises.

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Lauren Wolfe

Lauren Wolfe, an award-winning journalist, runs Chills, a Substack newsletter.