UNHCR fears for returning Syrian refugees

Briefing Notes, 12 April 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 12 April 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Over the past ten days UNHCR has seen an increase in the number of Syrians opting to return home from Jordan. During this period, an average of three hundred people have been crossing each day, returning to villages close to the border in the governorate of Daraa. A sizeable part of this governorate remains a battleground, and UNHCR fears for the safety of the returnees, the vast majority of whom are families.

New arrivals to Jordan continue to outpace this limited number of returns, with an average of 2,000 people crossing each day into Jordan. Every day there are wounded new arrivals. The total number of Syrian refugees who have spontaneously returned is less than one per cent of the total arrivals.

UNHCR is very concerned that refugees are returning to areas blighted by shortages of food, lack of fuel and electricity and limited services. The security situation is volatile, with reports of artillery shells and mortars being fired into villages refugees are trying to reclaim their homes and lives in.

Returnees are joining hundreds of thousands of Syrians in southern Syria who have long been struggling to survive. Basic staples like bread are often in short supply, while healthcare and education are often unavailable. If the conditions do not improve, it will be impossible for many to remain there.

The reasons for returning are varied, including improved security in a number of border villages, safeguarding their property, reuniting with family members who remained in Syria, or travelling to collect and bring back vulnerable family members to Jordan.

According to government estimates the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan is expected to exceed half a million refugees this month. If conditions do not improve inside Syria, the unrelenting flow of refugees fleeing to Jordan can be expected to continue.

UNHCR does not promote or facilitate these returns but we are counselling refugees who wish to return of the conditions they will face. We also undertake regular missions to the border. UNHCR is working with the Jordanian authorities to ensure that all refugees have access to their documentation should they make the decision to return to Syria.

Meanwhile from Iraq we have seen 3,900 returns in the past year, mainly from Al Qaim camp in Anbar Governorate to Abu Kamal in Syria. The situation in Abu Kamal is volatile, with bombings and ongoing conflict in the province. The main reasons given by refugees for returning are lack of freedom of movement in Al Qaim, limited livelihood opportunities and encouraging reports from their home areas regarding security. UNHCR is not associated with the returns and does not facilitate it. We are closely monitoring the situation and provide individual counselling to potential returnees to ensure they make an informed decision and understand the possible consequences of their return.

UNHCR provides regular technical support in the voluntary repatriations from Turkey through observation of the interviews conducted by designated Turkish authorities to safeguard the voluntary nature of return. According to the Prime Minister's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) over 97,000 Syrians have returned since March 2011. Of this number UNHCR has observed interviews with 13,000 cases, that's over 24,000 people. Roughly half of those returning said they were going back to Syria temporarily to check on their homes or to attend funerals. Some said that they were returning due to reports of an improvement in the security situation in their home areas.

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