Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. Image Credit: REUTERS

Dubai/Damascus: As Syria’s seven-year civil war winds down, Russia, a chief player and supporter of the government of Bashar Al Assad, has launched an initiative to facilitate the return Syrian refugees. It hopes to return at least two out of the 5.6 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations since 2011.

Under Russian influence, a higher committee was established in Damascus this month, focused on refugee repatriation, composed of the Syrian ministries of local administration, health, housing, interior, and foreign affairs.

Russian authorities have also drawn up a “Handbook on Repatriation” that was distributed to all Syrian embassies across the world and is setting up an online database to facilitate their comeback, with recommendations to create a Ministry of Refugees Affairs in Damascus, similar to the one Lebanon established after its civil war.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak during their meeting at the German government guest house Meseberg Palace in Gransee, Germany August 18, 2018. REUTERS

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Europe to financially contribute to the reconstruction of Syria to allow millions of refugees to return home.

“We need to strengthen the humanitarian effort in the Syrian conflict,” he said while meeting with his German counterpart Angela Merkel.

“By that, I mean above all humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and help the regions where refugees living abroad can return to.”

Germany has accepted hundreds of thousands of migrants since 2015 - the height of the migration crisis - which has weakened Angela Merkel politically and split the European Union.

Syrian refugees have returned since the beginning of the year

“This is potentially a huge burden for Europe,” Putin said.

“That’s why we have to do everything to get these people back home,” he added, emphasising the need to properly restore basic services such as water supplies and healthcare.

Merkel said the priority in Syria was “to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe”, but did not give any further details.

Funding incentive

Observers believe Russia’s repatriate plan aims to attract international funding for the cash-strapped Syrian government.

Countries which hosted Syrian refugees like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, received international donations to help them cope with the influx which strained their own economies.

In 2016-2017, the EU allocated 3 billion euros to Turkey to house, feed, and school its 3.5 million Syrian refugees, while Jordan has received 583 million euros for its 650,000 Syrian refugees since 2011.

Lebanon received 771 million euros to help deal with the approximately 1 million refugees constituting around 25 per cent of the population.

Syria is in dire need of the funds after the civil war caused the Syrian pound to lose more than 100 per cent of its value.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon have returned home

Seven years ago 50 SP was equivalent to 1 US dollar while today’s exchange range is a whopping 450 SP.

Despite the inflation, salaries have not increased, impoverishing hundreds of thousands.

It could take decades to rebuild the country’s war-ravaged infrastructure with some experts putting the cost at up to $400 billion USD.

Support from neighbouring countries

Syria’s neighbours have been cooperating with Russian authorities, in large part because they are eager to be rid of the huge financial strain the refugees have placed on their economies.

Jordan this month re-opened the Nasib Border Crossing with Syria, relieving Syrian goods from the single destination of Lebanon, and has refused to take in more refugees after the recent battles in the Syrian south.

Russia’s special presidential envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, left, meets with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the presidential palace, in Baabda east of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, July 26, 2018. AP

Turkey has offered to host a summit on September 7, inviting Russia, Germany and France to discuss the issue of repatriation, given Paris’ heavy involvement in the Syrian conflict and Germany’s hosting of over 600,000 Syrian refugees.

It, too, has closed its borders to new refugees as of last month.

Syrian refugees around the world

Last July, Lebanon welcomed Russian president Putin’s special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev, who discussed joint efforts at sending the Syrians back home.

Lebanese president Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Foreign Minister Jibran Bassil as well as their Shiite backers, Hezbollah, have voiced repeated calls for Syrians to return.

They fear if Syrians (mostly Sunni Muslims) stay, it might tip the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon against their favour.

International reluctance

Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri is opposed to their return, however, claiming that arrest or death await them across the border. His views are shared by several countries who fear for their safety, like Saudi Arabia and France, citing the possibility of regime reprisal.

Opposition websites are reporting harassment and arrest of returning individuals.

Syrian refugees sitting in a bus look out as they cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Saturday, July 28, 2018. AP

“There are serious concerns about their safety due to alleged arrests carried out by Al Assad’s forces with Tehran’s tactic approval,” Russian Middle East analyst Dmitriy Frolovskiy told Gulf News.

Syrian officials deny reports of arrests or harassment of returnees and say they are being treated well and being provided with basic services like water and electricity, along with construction material to rebuild their destroyed homes.

They also say that there is a six-month grace period for those who return to enlist in the army.

European countries are also voicing concern over their return, having clearly stated they would not release funds unless a “comprehensive, genuine, and inclusive” political transition is underway, agreed upon by both sides of the Syrian conflict, based on UNSCR 2254.

They fear the Syria government would use the funding to further subjugate citizens opposed to their rule.

In January, then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US would discourage economic relationships between the Al Assad regime and any other country.

A bill is also circulating in the US Congress called the “No Assistance for Assad Act”.

The EU has clearly linked funding reconstruction to UN-backed talks in Geneva aimed at political transition—something that Al Assad and his backers are fiercely against.

Aside from Syria’s allies, Russia, Iran and China, there is little indication other countries will be contributing funds for reconstruction or returning refugees

Returns begin

It is hard to know for sure just how many refugees have returned to Syria as there hasn’t been enough data compiled.

According to UNHCR, 13,000 Syrians have returned since the beginning of the year.

Syrian refugees enter a bus to cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Saturday, July 28, 2018. AP

Approximately 4,100 came from Lebanon, according to Russian Major General Alexei Tsygankov, head of the Center for Refugee Reception, Distribution, and Accommodation.

Meanwhile, no clear data has been issued on refugees numbers returning from Turkey and Jordan.

Additionally, around 750,000 internally displaced Syrians have been able to go back to their homes, according to the UN.

However, this is a drop in the bucket to the nearly 11 million displaced from the war which accounts for around half the Syrian population.

Will Law 10 discourage returns?

Earlier this year, Syria proposed a controversial piece of legislation, Law 10, aimed at re-organising private and public real estate in Syria, especially in war-effected areas.

The law, which is yet to go into effect, gives owners a 30-day grace period to prove that they own a plot of land or home, by providing property documents either by showing up in person or through relatives up to the fourth degree.

Those who fail to do so suffer the confiscation of their property and either its transferred into government hands or old at public auction.

Syrians who fear losing their properties might return if they still have their documents, but many say their documents have been destroyed in government bombing of their homes.

If the law is passed, this could further discourage Syrians from returning if they have no home to come back to.