Syrian refugees cling on in Turkey, Lebanon as fears over coerced returns grow

BEIRUT, Oct 24 (Reuters) - The first Syrian refugees in Lebanon to return home under a new repatriation scheme will leave on Wednesday, but few in worn-down camps in the central Bekaa Valley said they would sign up.

Rights groups fear the programme may not be as voluntary as it purports to be, at a time when concerns are growing about a policy of coercion they say is already in force in Turkey, where 3.6 million Syrians who have fled their country are registered.

"How are you supposed to go while there is a war?" said Manal, a 29-year-old Syrian woman eking out a precarious existence in a Bekaa Valley camp, where she is staying put.

This year, both host countries have ramped up pressure on refugees to leave.

In Lebanon, which is hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrians, President Michel Aoun – whose term ends on Oct. 31 – said its General Security agency would facilitate voluntary returns, reprising its role from 2018 in the repatriation of around 400,000 who had escaped the violence that followed the 2011 protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

It checked with authorities in Damascus if those individuals had any arrest warrants against them and then provided transportation across the border.

United Nations refugee agency UNHCR did not back that process but its representatives were on-site if refugees had questions, and may play the same role this time.

Amnesty International said it understood upcoming returns would take place through the same mechanism.

However, "Syria is not safe for returns," said the global rights group's Syria researcher Diana Semaan. It found that past returnees had been subject to rights violations including detention, torture, rape and forced disappearance.

General Security did not respond to requests by Reuters for comment.

But Semaan said it was unlikely that refugees indicating they wanted to return had accurate information on security and service provision in their hometowns.

Manal's home province Deir Ezzor, Syria's easternmost, has like much of the country been carved into slices by the warring parties.

Islamist militants carry out hit-and-run attacks there, while U.S.-backed Kurds control some areas and government-aligned militias others.

Syrian refugees sit near an informal camp, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon October 18, 2022. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

Manal lost her two sons to an air strike there several years ago. She fled to Lebanon with her two daughters and earns a little over $2 a day sorting scrapwood to sell for bonfires.

"It's easier to live this humiliating life than lose more people from my life. I'm not ready to lose my girls in the war,” she told Reuters.

'TERRIFIED TO GO OUT'

In Turkey, meanwhile, advocacy group Human Rights Watch on Monday accused authorities of arbitrarily detaining and deporting hundreds of Syrian refugees this year, in violation of the non-refoulement principle of not forcing asylum seekers back to a country where they may be persecuted.

It said Turkish authorities had arrested Syrians in streets, homes and workplaces, then beaten them, pushed them to sign documents claiming they were voluntarily returning, and forced them into Syria at gunpoint.

Some were from government-held zones but were pushed into rebel-held areas where clashes broke out this month.

Turkey's interior ministry declined to comment to Reuters.

The head of its Presidency for Migration Management, Savas Unlu told HRW their allegations were "baseless" and that Turkey complied with international migration law.

HRW researcher Nadia Hardman told Reuters that Syrian refugees in Turkey were now "terrified to go out – men in particular. They say that fear of running into checkpoints reminds them of Syria."

Muhanad, a 30-year-old Syrian living in Turkey, was detained for just under a week after authorities found him in a province other than the one where he registered for protected status.

After threatening to deport him to government-held parts of Syria, where he is wanted, authorities dumped him and three dozen other Syrians at a junkyard hours away from their homes.

Muhanad now avoids public transport so he is not detained again.

"If I'm not working I just sit at home, and it's wearing down my mental health," he told Reuters.

"I can't go back to Syria, but I can't stay here either."

Reporting by Maya Gebeily; editing by John Stonestreet

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