AMMAN, JORDAN - Even as Russia pushes to repatriate Syrians who fled their country amid civil war, many of the refugees in Jordan said Thursday they will not return before the war has ended and their safety is assured.
Some Syrians interviewed in Amman also said they don’t trust Russia as a mediator because it helped President Bashar Assad retake large swaths of territory from fighters who revolted against him.
“As a free, honest Syrian citizen, I consider Russia as a state occupying Syria,” said Abdel-Nasser Abu Naboot, 40, who was at the U.N.’s refugee agency office to update his personal information with dozens of other Syrians. “Russia is not a negotiator ... it bombed us, children and charities.”
His comments echoed that of many Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon concerned about a Russian initiative to return refugees to homes back in Syria without security assurances. The U.N. has also expressed concern about a premature return before the situation in Syria stabilizes and without guarantees for returning refugees.
Russia’s special presidential envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, acknowledged the concerns in comments to reporters in the Lebanese capital after meeting officials in Beirut and Amman on Thursday.
“There are a lot of issues dealing with this problem. It’s a lack of confidence, a lack of trust, just a lack of financial assistance. But these questions can be solved,” he said, adding that the Syrian government is willing to guarantee there will be no repression or measures against those who really want to return to civil life.
He said it was a “good sign” that hundreds of refugees in Lebanon were starting to return to Syria, describing it as “just the beginning.”
“You know its just like a snowball which comes from the mountain, with every passing meter it becomes bigger and bigger,” he said, speaking in English.
Many Syrians who fled war and repression are unwilling to return under Assad’s rule without guarantees they won’t be harassed, detained or imprisoned.
To return to his home in southern province of Daraa, Abu Naboot says he wants the goals of the Syrian “revolution,” which began in 2011, to be achieved, including ending “oppression.” He insisted that he “will not go to pre-2011 Syria.”
Eager to show a normalizing situation in Syria, Russia has stepped up efforts to encourage regional host countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees. The move is seen as an attempt to assert Russia’s successes in helping Assad retake most of the country from rebels after seven years of unrest.
The Russian initiative was proposed following the summit in Helsinki between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, although it was not clear whether the U.S. supported the proposal.
Lavrentiev discussed the repatriation plans in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.
“Jordan encourages the voluntarily return of Syrians to their homeland,” Safadi said in a statement after the meeting, stressing the need to provide “security, political, social and economic grounds” to urge the Syrians to go back by themselves.
Lavrentiev later met with the Lebanese president and prime minister in Lebanon, where he said the refugee presence is a burden in many countries and it’s time they returned home. He did not offer concrete proposals on how the repatriation would take place. Lebanon is home to about a million registered refugees and the cash-strapped government says it can no longer afford to host them. The Lebanese foreign minister has accused the U.N. refugee agency of discouraging refugees from returning, an accusation it rejects.
Jordan hosts 667,000 registered Syrian refugees, but the kingdom says the real number, including those undocumented, is almost double. Poor in natural resources and with a faltering economy, Amman says the refugees add an extra burden.
Ibrahim al-Khalaf, 31, a Syrian refugee from the northeast Syria governorate of al-Hasakah, says he doesn’t feel it is safe to return.
“There is nothing clear, no protection program for the Syrians in Syria,” he said as he waited with his wife and three children at the refugee agency’s office to register a newborn. “I don’t want to be separated from my family if I go back because of the military service.”
Mohammad Hawari, a spokesman for the U.N.’s refugee agency, said his organization, while welcoming an end to the Syrian crisis, has a long list of conditions before encouraging refugees to return. UNHCR has insisted it will not allow Syrians to be forcibly returned.
“Before the high commissioner for refugees will facilitate the process of return, there are at least 21 conditions that must be made available, including safety and stability, exemption from conscription, and other things,” he told The Associated Press.