The Human Cost of Normalizing Assad

Arab states are welcoming the Syrian president back into the fold. That’s bad news for millions of Syrian refugees.

Syrian refugees stand at the entrance to their family’s tent.
Syrian refugees stand at the entrance to their family’s tent.
Syrian refugees stand at the entrance to their family’s tent at a refugee camp in the area of Terbol in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley on April 26, 2021. Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

The first time Yousef* was detained in Lebanon, he had just been smuggled across the Syrian border. An anti-regime activist from Syria’s Damascus countryside, Yousef co-managed an opposition Facebook page during the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When a trafficker brought him to Lebanon three years later, Yousef knew he may never see his homeland again. But as he now sees countries taking steps to normalize relations with Assad, he worries he’ll be forced back prematurely.

The first time Yousef* was detained in Lebanon, he had just been smuggled across the Syrian border. An anti-regime activist from Syria’s Damascus countryside, Yousef co-managed an opposition Facebook page during the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When a trafficker brought him to Lebanon three years later, Yousef knew he may never see his homeland again. But as he now sees countries taking steps to normalize relations with Assad, he worries he’ll be forced back prematurely.

Shortly after crossing into Lebanon, Yousef was stopped in the border town of Arsal at a checkpoint run by the Iranian-backed armed group Hezbollah, the most powerful political actor in Lebanon and a key ally of Assad. Passed to the custody of Lebanese military intelligence, Yousef was held in detention for 33 days and faced repeated beatings. He’s one of hundreds of Syrians rights groups say Lebanese authorities have arbitrarily detained and tortured, some of whom have been subjected to sleep deprivation, electric shocks, and mock executions. Yousef was released on the condition he find an employer that week to sponsor his stay in Lebanon. Seven years later, he has yet to find one.

Now 30 years old, Yousef has lived illegally in Lebanon ever since. He’s hardly alone—only 16 percent of Syrians over the age of 14 currently in Lebanon have been granted residency, according to the United Nations (down from 20 percent in 2020). This isn’t an accident: Lebanese authorities have passed a series of regulations since 2015 discouraging refugees from staying. Permits are out of reach for most Syrians, who can’t afford the $200 annual renewal fee. “It’s all about money,” said Yousef, whose fine today would be $1,600.

Most Syrians lack work permits too. Even if Yousef had one, he would still be barred from most jobs—and certainly any his business administration studies would warrant. Lebanon only authorizes Syrians to work in the construction, agriculture, and cleaning sectors. Yousef has worked his share of gigs in the informal economy over the years—as a barber, in a cafe, at a telephone shop—though he’s currently unemployed. “The wages didn’t even cover my taxi to work,” he said. At only $2 to $6 a day, they certainly couldn’t cover the $800 a potential sponsor demanded for patronage under the kafala system, which connects foreign workers to local sponsors.

Yousef’s lack of residency status led to his second detention. In Beirut without a sponsor, he turned to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), hoping to at least qualify for aid. (Yousef said he hasn’t received any as a single man, with most of the money going to families.) The UNHCR “recorded” him for assistance, since Lebanon stopped allowing the agency to “register” refugees in 2015—another effort to restrict residency claims.

But soon after being recorded, Yousef moved from Beirut to Tripoli, Lebanon, citing the cheaper cost of living in Lebanon’s second largest city and less discrimination in the Sunni-majority north. (The Syrian opposition is largely Sunni against Assad’s Alawite minority government.) When he had to return to Beirut in 2018 to renew his UNHCR certificate, Yousef was stopped at a checkpoint and taken into custody. This time, he was only held for three days, but once again, he was given one week’s notice to find a sponsor—and again, he couldn’t afford to pay one off.

Because of Yousef’s refugee status, the warning was mostly symbolic; it’s against international law for Lebanon to deport him. But that hasn’t stopped Lebanese authorities from trying to force Syrians out. Policies have aimed to make their lives as difficult as possible and promote “voluntary return,” which Lebanon has provided buses back to Syria for.

Over the past few years, dozens of municipalities have evicted Syrians and instituted curfews and wage caps. Authorities have demolished concrete tents in refugee camps and shuttered nonpermitted workers’ shops. “We’ve really never seen such blatant discrimination by authorities against Syrian refugees in both rhetoric and practice the way we’ve seen it in Lebanon,” said Sara Kayyali, Human Rights Watch’s Syria researcher.

Lebanese authorities have said policies that single out Syrians aim to protect their workers’ security and economic well-being. A spokesperson for Ras Baalbek, a municipality that issued a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for Syrians in November 2021, told L’Orient Today that the decision “was set as a measurement to reduce the rate of thefts happening in the area.” Ras Baalbek also issued a daily wage cap of less than $2 per day for Syrian men at Lebanon’s black market exchange rate, which the spokesperson said was because “Syrian workers are already getting international aid and are paid in dollars every day from foreign funds.”

Some policies have actively removed Syrians too, and more than 6,000 refugees who have arrived since April 2019 have been deported under a ruling by the Higher Defence Council. The COVID-19 pandemic halted most legal crossings and deportations for 2020 and 2021, but Yousef has watched recent regional developments with alarm. He worries more and more that the decision to return to Syria won’t be his to make—and he fears if he’s forced back, his 33-day detention the last time he crossed will feel like nothing compared to what lies ahead.

Yousef can hardly imagine a situation worse than the one he lives with in Lebanon—except across the border in Syria. Refugees who return there face arbitrary detention, torture, rape, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, according to recent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Yousef said he can never go home under the Assad regime; he’s wanted by Syrian authorities on “terrorism” charges and would still have to complete the mandatory military service for men ages 18 to 42.

Yet with Assad now controlling around 70 percent of the territory and with fighting reduced, some European countries have started to inch toward Lebanon’s playbook. “They want to turn the page and pretend the last decade hasn’t happened,” Kayyali said.

Denmark, in particular, has stripped the “temporary residency” status of refugees from Damascus or the Damascus countryside—Yousef’s home—even as dozens of human rights abuse cases are documented near the capital. Nobody else has followed Denmark yet, but “other countries are looking at Denmark’s model and wondering if they can do the same,” Kayyali said.

Meanwhile, regional dynamics are shifting in the Middle East. In November, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Assad in Damascus, making him the most senior Emirati official to travel to Syria since the war began. This followed a phone call one month prior between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Assad, also the first in a decade. Bahrain has now appointed its first ambassador to Syria since early in the war.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat, said in an interview he doesn’t expect the international community to change its position on refugees for now. However, he expects repatriation will be central to any future international agreement to end Syria’s civil war. “The time’s not ready yet” for most countries to try to send their refugees back to Syria, he said. “But Syrian refugees will be the price to settle the Syrian crisis.”

Assad’s close relationship with Iran also complicates refugee return, Barabandi said. If the mostly Sunni refugee population returns, Syria’s demographics will complicate Shiite-power Iran’s regional ambitions. “Iran wants to have a big influence on Syria’s future,” Barabandi added. “A large Sunni Arab population makes that almost impossible. That’s why Iran never talks about the refugee issue.”

Arab states are welcoming Assad back into the fold in part to counter Iranian influence, Barabandi said, though he also emphasized that each state has its own distinct interests—such as diplomatic influence for the United Arab Emirates, which has also made gestures toward Iran, and economic benefits for Jordan. Several members of the Arab League are now pushing to readmit Syria, whose membership was suspended in 2011.

The United States has publicly denounced its allies’ overtures toward Assad and maintains its own sanctions on Syria. “What we have not done and what we do not intend to do is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Mr. Assad or lifted a single sanction on Syria or changed our position to oppose the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in October 2021.

But some think U.S. allies would not act without a tacit go-ahead from Washington. “When the UAE and Jordan came for their own reasons to the Americans, the U.S. didn’t have any reason to say no,” Barabandi said. “The Americans don’t want the regime to collapse in Syria—that’s one of the lessons they learned from Iraq.”

Assad may remain in power, but he rules over a country in shambles. Syria’s economy—driven to ruin by corruption and a decade of war—has only further decayed since 2020 with the pandemic, new sanctions, and a parallel crisis next door in Lebanon. (Many rich Syrians’ money is trapped in Lebanese banks.) Syria’s currency is in freefall, and more than 12 million Syrians, of the 18 million who remain in the country, now face hunger. Basic item prices soared by 236 percent and oil prices by 500 percent over the course of 2020.

Although Assad might not want refugees who oppose his rule of return, he does want the aid dollars and investment that will come with them, both Barabandi and Kayyali said. “The Syrian government has adopted a legal and policy framework that’s designed to co-opt aid to their benefit,” Kayyali added. “Any aid that goes in benefits the Syrian government, its projects, its plans, to the detriment of people on the ground in need, to the detriment of their human rights obligations.”

Currently, that aid goes to refugee host countries like Lebanon and Jordan. But after so many years of Syrians’ displacement, “donor funds are drying up,” Kayyali said. Yearly international funding for countries hosting Syrian refugees dropped by $1.39 billion between 2017 and 2021. For Lebanon, the timing couldn’t be worse; it’s dealing with its own economic meltdown, which has driven three-quarters of Lebanon’s 6.7 million residents (only 4.5 million of whom are Lebanese citizens) into poverty.

These hardships have amplified the already rampant discrimination against Syrians in Lebanon, who form the second largest per capita refugee population in the world (behind Venezuelans in Aruba). With more than 815,000 Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon—a number the Lebanese government estimates is closer to 1.5 million—Lebanese politicians have used Syrians as scapegoats for the country’s illnesses. They portray refugees as competing for jobs, receiving disproportionate aid, and sucking the state’s limited resources. “We will not be replaced on this land, which bore prophets and saints; not by a refugee, nor a displaced person, nor a corrupt person,” tweeted Gebran Bassil, the head of Lebanon’s largest Christian party and the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, in 2019.

The numbers tell a different story: Nine out of 10 Syrian refugee households in Lebanon now live in extreme poverty, with roughly half of all families food insecure, according to the United Nations. The COVID-19 death rate for Syrian refugees is four times Lebanon’s national average, as refugees struggle to access medical care. Refugees have been victims of hate crimes and their camps targets of arson attacks.

Larger geopolitical dynamics are out of refugees’ hands, who just struggle to get by day to day. But they’re the ones who most bear the costs of these changes on the ground. Stuck between a bad situation and a worse one, some have decided to risk the journey home to Syria. That so many double back to Lebanon, however, is testament to their harrowing experiences.

Down an alleyway of the Shatila refugee camp filled with garbage and sewage, Nada* lives with her husband, six children, brother-in-law, and his wife in a two-bedroom apartment that is falling apart. Above the home’s entryway, two pipes burst out of a ceiling that lacks plaster. In the kitchen sit the remnants of a gas cylinder that caught fire in November 2021, burning the family’s food supply.

All of the families in this overcrammed, three-story building in the center of southern Beirut’s largest Palestinian refugee camp are Syrian. Their situation isn’t unique. According to the United Nations, 57 percent of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon live in “dangerous, substandard or overcrowded” conditions.

On this November day, Nada’s husband, Khaled*, isn’t home. As he does almost every day, he left in the morning to wait under a bridge near the refugee camp, hoping for somebody to hire him. He’ll move furniture, mix cement, carry bricks, or work in fields—whatever they’ll pay him to do. He’s not educated. He’s not literate. His options are limited.

With bad eyes and shoulders though, Khaled can’t do the toughest jobs, and with stiff competition, he only finds work 10 to 15 days a month. He provides the family’s only source of income, yet the $2 to $4 wages usually can’t cover a day’s living expenses. “If we are very lucky, it gets us through one day,” Nada said. But even then, it’s just the basics: bread and water, potatoes or tomatoes. Certainly no luxuries like diapers for her newborn baby.

None of Nada’s children are in school. Like their parents, none of them can read. Lebanon doesn’t make education easy for Syrian refugees, having adopted policies that block thousands of refugee children without residency or educational records from the classroom.

To survive, Nada lives off debt. At least living among Palestinians, she said she doesn’t endure the same racism many Syrians find from some Lebanese. At the nearby corner store, there’s trust—they let her get the diapers and pay later.

But back in 2018, her husband was barely working. They couldn’t make the rent, and their landlord cut their electricity and water. The children were hungry; they missed open spaces. “For the kids, Shatila was like jail,” she said. “There were no places to play.”

Khaled still fears arrest and forced military service back in Syria, but as a woman in her mid-30s, Nada wouldn’t be conscripted. She wasn’t wanted for anti-regime activism either. So she took her children home to Syria.

This wouldn’t be the first time Nada and her children lived in Syria without Khaled. In 2015, he first crossed into Lebanon without them. They hoped life would get better in Syria and Khaled could come back. But it got worse. Their town in the Aleppo countryside was under the Islamic State’s control and Syrian government bombardment.

After a year, Nada decided she couldn’t live without her husband. Smugglers took her and the kids (there were four at the time) by boat up Lake Assad to the Manbij, Syrian, countryside—which was under Kurdish control at the time—for $300. Nada and her daughter were in one boat, and her three sons were in another. But during the journey north, bombs rained down. For four days, Nada thought her sons had been killed.

She ended up finding them with relatives in Manbij, and after another six months and another $300, the family headed to the Syria-Lebanon border. Like Khaled, they exited Syria legally—though Syrian border police demanded an extra bribe per person—and entered Lebanon illegally.

Nada lasted less than two years in Lebanon. Despite the last journey’s trauma and the fact that she was pregnant, she had had enough. “My family told me to stay in Lebanon,” she said, but she didn’t listen. On her way out, Lebanese border patrols issued her the permanent reentry ban now given to Syrians who exit legally without paying a fine.

More than 280,000 refugees have returned to Syria since 2016, according to the United Nations. That’s likely an undercount, since many refugees, such as Nada, do not inform authorities of their comings and goings. (It’s also just a fraction of the estimated 6.8 million Syrian refugees worldwide.)

After she entered Syria, Nada faced checkpoint after checkpoint, but she eventually made it back to her home village. There, she found her home completely destroyed. It had been bombed and looted. The furniture had been stolen. The home was unlivable—but Nada and her kids lived there anyway. With neighbors, they made cement and makeshift bricks of hay and mud to partially rebuild.

But they had almost no electricity. No gas. No telephone lines. The village’s infrastructure was destroyed. Nada found day work in the fields picking crops, yet she never earned enough to survive. There were food shortages, Nada was in debt and the kids were hungry, more so than in Lebanon. The nearest doctors and pharmacies were roughly 60 miles away in Aleppo, Syria, risking passage through many checkpoints.

Nada also didn’t feel any safer after returning to Syria than before she left. She lived with the same sense of fear and insecurity that permeates everyday life in the country. She was never detained or tortured, but a cousin of hers disappeared. She still hasn’t found out what happened to him.

Before she left Lebanon, Nada couldn’t imagine missing it. Life was so hard there. But it was even harder back home. So in late 2020, Nada once more headed for the border—this time with five kids. With her permanent ban though, she couldn’t go to an official crossing. A smuggler took Nada and her children all the way from her home in the Aleppo countryside to Beirut, through the mountains of Homs, for $250.

In a survey of Syrians conducted by the United Nations, 70 percent expressed a desire to return home someday. But 9 out of 10 people surveyed also said they don’t plan to go back in the next 12 months—even though they can’t meet their basic needs in their host countries. No matter how tough their situation gets, most refugees said conditions back home will determine their thinking on return; Nada being driven out of Lebanon by discriminatory policies was an unusual case.

In a July 2021 statement, the UNHCR said “as discussions on the return of displaced Syrians pick up, it’s important to ensure international principles guide any efforts to support the return of those displaced.” The statement added the UNHCR “welcomes all efforts to build an environment that enables refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) to exercise their right to return,” and “all stakeholders must work to collectively address the barriers to return as expressed by refugees themselves, if we are to increase the likelihood that this becomes a realistic, safe and sustainable solution for a larger number of people.”

But Kayyali said she’s not sure that fostering a safe environment for return is possible while Assad remains in power. “Without serious reform of the Syrian government and its apparatus, I think it’s highly unlikely that conditions will be in place for refugees to return safely and voluntarily,” she said.

Since Nada’s return to Lebanon, life has only become more difficult than before she left. But now that she’s seen the alternative, Nada has no plans to return to Syria again. “Never,” she emphasized. “I will stay here, whatever happens.”

Yousef, for his part, hopes that option—“stay here, whatever happens”—will remain.

*Names have been changed to protect the sources’ identities.

Ala’a Burjas contributed to this report.

Correction, Jan. 5, 2022: A previous version of this article misidentified Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Alex Lederman is a multimedia journalist who has worked at AFP, Al Jazeera English and Vox’s Netflix docuseries Explained. He co-directed the PBS/The Atlantic documentary short From Damascus to Chicago.

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