Refugees forced to return to Syria face imprisonment, death at the hands of Assad

I worked on the Syrian-Turkish border from 2012-16, leading the U.S. government team that was pushing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and other aid into northwest Syria. We were helping communities that had been cut off by the Syrian government.

Maybe no American official heard more about the suffering inside Syria at the hands of the Syrian regime than I did.

More than 3.5 million Syrian refugees fled violence and persecution in Syria for Turkey. Some faced forced conscription into the army to fight their fellow Syrians. Some paid huge bribes to escape torture for demonstrating peacefully against the regime.

Most couldn’t take another day of indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians in schools, hospitals and markets.

I left Turkey in 2016, retired from the U.S. government in 2017 and follow Syria as a private American citizen. I also teach about foreign aid at the University of Washington.

The Syrian government shelled its own people during the civil war. Here, a victim in a hospital bed in 2014, Aleppo, Syria. AP/Muhammed Muheisen
Last month I was in Berlin for two days, coaching a group of Syrian civil society organizations about how to make themselves heard at an upcoming meeting of European Union nations in Brussels on the future of Syria.

These Syrian activists know the civil war is lost, that Bashar al-Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future (thanks to his Russian and Iranian backers) and that the West did very little when it came to backing real change in Syria.

But they know there is one battle left to fight: the battle to stop Syrian refugees from being forced to return to Syria against their will.

Millions fled

The burden the refugees put on Syria’s neighbors is clear.

There are half a million Syrian refugees living in towns and cities across Jordan, a country already hosting tens of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. In Lebanon, there are nearly a million Syrian refugees – that’s one-sixth of the population. More than 3 million are living in Turkey.

A small percentage live in camps in Jordan and Turkey; there are no refugee camps in Lebanon. Most refugees are living in Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish communities, sharing services with local populations.

The governments and people of these countries deserve the world’s thanks for the hospitality they’ve shown.

Some other countries have tried to help. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, spent hundreds of millions in Jordan to help communities near the Syrian border cope with increased demands for education and medical care.

I saw the Zakat Foundation, a private American charity from Chicago, running “second-shift schools” for Syrian children in Turkey, after the Turkish children had left their schools for the day.

But this work pales in comparison with the generosity extended by the neighboring countries themselves.

Danger in returning

As grateful as they are for the welcome in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, the refugees want to go home and try to put their lives back together. Their homes, their property, their cemeteries and loved ones are inside Syria.