“Returning from Germany”, the German government’s “information portal on voluntary return and reintegration”, makes it clear that a “voluntary” return to Syria is not safe and “(a)s a result of the ongoing difficult security situation” cannot be supported by the IOM programmes REAG/GARP and StarthilfePlus. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is continuously examining and monitoring the situation, however. In fact, due to the initiative of the German Länder, it is possible to apply for “voluntary return” through so-called “agencies transmitting applications”, i.e. the immigration authorities, Länder offices for refugees (LAF) or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that provide counselling. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) reimburses the German Länder on a pro rata basis for costs incurred in this connection in accordance with the “support grants” under the REAG/GARP programme. However, in contrast to the usual procedure, these are not paid out via a local IOM office or another cooperating agency in the country of origin. Instead, the grant is paid out in cash in Germany after the return ticket has been received. One can receive the sum of up to EUR 3,500 per family unit or, in the case of so-called early departure (before the asylum procedure is completed), EUR 4,000. In addition, the German authorities help applicants obtain travel documents, for example with a so-called laissez-passé document, a paper allowing one to cross the border once.
Poster campaigns and rising numbers of departures
The Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) claims that it does not promote return to Syria in a targeted manner. Many Syrians feel differently. The Ministry of the Interior’s nationwide poster campaign launched in November 2018 and headlined “Your country. Your future. Now!”, featuring various state flags arranged in a zigzag pattern, was ostensibly aimed at “persons without prospects of staying”, but not least prominently displayed Syria’s official flag. The campaign was taken up by right-wing extremists who apparently saw points of tangency with the rhetoric of the political party Alternative for Germany (AfD). According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), there were a total of 199 people who left for Syria “voluntarily” in 2017, 466 the year after and 347 in 2019. In 2020, according to the written question submitted to the Federal Ministry of the Interior by MP Omid Nouripour, there were 83 people, most of whom had lived in Germany for between one and three years. According to LAF Berlin, from January to March 2021, nine people in Berlin alone took advantage of return programmes to Syria.
Independent counselling is not the rule
The Federal Government's response to the targeted enquiry from 2019 shows that applications – with the exception of four cases in 2017 and two cases in 2018 – were filed with the immigration authorities. While advisory NGOs have to be sought out in a targeted manner, asylum-seekers or persons with refugee status automatically have contact with government authorities. This raises the question of independent and open-ended counselling. It also remains unclear on what basis the counselling takes place, i.e. how well the counsellors are informed about the situation in Syria. The Federal Government draws attention in this regard to the return counselling centres and the Länder. One government agency underscored that the statements made by the people who come to them are an important source of information, as Syrians are best able to assess the situation on the ground. This trust and confidence in the assessment of Syrians is gratifying. This principle is not applied anywhere else, however, be it the “obligation to cooperate in obtaining a passport” at the Syrian embassy or the question of refusal of military service as a reason for asylum.
In its report on the situation in Syria of November 2020, as well as in the reports from 2018 and 2019, the Federal Foreign Office issues a clear statement in this regard. According to the report, “(a) safe return (...) cannot be guaranteed and verified in principle for any particular region of Syria or for any group of persons”. It goes on to say that returnees are repeatedly exposed to renewed repression and “imminent danger to life and limb”. Moreover, “the danger of becoming a victim of state repression and arbitrariness (...) remains unpredictable for the individual, leading to a climate of omnipresent fear and insecurity”. This is also confirmed by figures from the grassroots organisation Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity (SACD) in a 2019 survey, according to which 37 per cent of returnees or their relatives are wanted by the intelligence services. 25 per cent were interrogated or arrested after their return. 84 per cent of respondents state that they would advise other Syrians not to return. 58 per cent would leave Syria again if they could.
Suspension of family reunification increases pressure
Although the reasons are not systematically recorded, counselling agencies and the Federal Government cite integration difficulties, homesickness, family reasons and the living situation of families in Syria as important factors for the decision to return. An advisory NGO in Berlin also describes gender-specific reasons for women to return, such as caring for their single mothers or fleeing from their Syrian husbands in Germany. The Länder offices also say that people who fall under the Dublin Rule - i.e. asylum-seekers who are to be returned from one EU state to another in accordance with the Dublin III Agreement - sometimes prefer to make use of return assistance rather than be deported to a third country.
A look at the protection status of returnees is also revealing: One government authority states that none of the returnees had full refugee status under the Geneva Convention or asylum under §16 of the Basic Law (the German Constitution). They would only have had a right to subsidiary protection, toleration or a border-crossing order. This moves the focus to practice by the German authorities: While in 2015, 99.7 per cent of all Syrians were granted full refugee protection, only 58 per cent received this in 2016, and in 2017 the number dropped to 38 per cent - while 61 per cent were granted subsidiary protection (many of these decisions were overturned in “upgrade appeals”). Parallel to this development, the two-year suspension of family reunification was decreed through Asylum Package II in March 2016. Since 2018, the Family Reunification Act (Familiennachzugsneuregelungsgesetz) has restricted reunification by means of quota arrangements to such an extent that many families remain separated from each other for years. People who had to flee political persecution at the hands of the Assad regime are also affected by the new regulation. Sometimes families set out on their own after years of waiting in precarious situations – often with fatal consequences, as in the tragic case of Salah J.'s family.
Driven to return
The case of Khalil, a publisher from Damascus, shows what a major role the separation of families plays in the decision to return: The wife of the long-time member of the opposition has Lebanese citizenship, although she herself has never lived there. This relic from the French colonial era did not play a role until she was initially denied family reunification, citing her citizenship. Lebanon was a safe third country where they could live together as a family, she was told, thereby ignoring the precarious security situation of Syrians in that country. Because he could no longer endure the separation and there was no prospect of him ever seeing his family again without family reunification, Khalil agreed to return to Syria, even though the risk of arrest at the airport and imprisonment resulting in death was great. Khalil received enormous legal and civil society support in Germany. It was only by virtue of this that his wife and children were finally able to obtain an entry visa to Germany.
People who “want” to return for family reasons, even if they risk their lives in the process, need positive prospects to be reunited with their relatives in Germany instead of support for their “voluntary” return. In 2019, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) temporarily changed its Syria Guidelines, which resulted in the granting of bans on deportation instead of subsidiary protection. This very weak protection based on “humanitarian grounds” not only removes entitlement to a residence permit. It makes family reunification virtually impossible. This and the withdrawal of residence permits for Syrians seeking protection show how structures are systematically being created to push people into “voluntary” return. The complexity of reasons for return, counselling structures and counselling content as well as alternatives for stakeholders must be made transparent; counselling should also be provided by independent non-governmental organisations and not by immigration authorities or government offices.
Systematic disappearance of returnees
There is no mechanism and probably no interest on the part of the authorities in Germany to review the situation of Syrians after their return. This may be due to the fact that returnees lose their residence status and any entitlement to protection in Germany when they leave the country. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) puts the number of returnees detained in Syria between 2014 and 2019 at 1,132, of whom 638 are considered to have disappeared. According to research conducted by Foreign Policy, this includes cases of persons coming from Germany who were unable to obtain the necessary papers for family reunification due to the destruction of their homes.
The best-known and perhaps most shocking case of a “voluntary” returnee is that of Mazen al-Hamada, an activist from Deir Azzor who was imprisoned several times and granted asylum in the Netherlands in 2014. Although he was not sponsored by a return programme, his case sheds light on the complexity of decisions to return and the fate of refugees after their supposedly safe arrival in Europe. In the documentary film “Syria’s Disappeared” (2018), he describes in detail the horror of torture in Syria. Through his work, he wanted to help ensure that the Syrian regime would one day be held accountable.
According to friends, in February 2020 Hamada boarded a plane to Beirut in Berlin-Schönefeld with a connecting flight to Damascus. He had become increasingly frustrated that his work was going nowhere, while the regime reconquered ever more parts of the country. The political nature of trauma is illustrated by what he said as he changed planes in Beirut: “I want to sacrifice myself to stop the bloodshed.” According to research, Hamada had checked several times with the Syrian embassy in to make sure he was not wanted by the regime Berlin before entering the country. Since his arrival at Damascus airport, there has been no trace of Hamada. Presumably he was arrested - which in Syria means he has disappeared. Hamada’s story is thus one more chapter added to the tragic fates of 100,000 people who have disappeared since March 2011.
Syria is not safe
Since 2012, there has been a ban on deportations to Syria, which was lifted in December 2020 by the Conference of Ministers of the Interior in Weimar. This was done primarily for domestic political reasons and with the help of populist agitation against “foreign criminals”, but with far-reaching consequences for foreign policy: Deportation to Syria would mean cooperation with the regime in Damascus, which violates international law. The Syrian regime was recently convicted of systematic torture by Koblenz Superior Regional Court. The campaign “Syria not safe”, supported by Syrian activists and a broad alliance of civil society movements, sheds light on the security situation in Syria and asks Syrians to describe what would happen to them if they were deported. The lifting of the ban on deportations, the increasingly frequent revocation of protection status of Syrians and programmes for voluntary return to Syria are all part of a policy that aims to get people out of Germany. It is a policy that says: Go - or you will have to go.
“What is so perfidious is that every Syrian refugee has to sign a waiver of appeal before claiming funding support for a return. This extinguishes the legal claim to be able to take legal action against government authorities’ actions afterwards, even if a returnee is in peril in Syria.”
Till Küster, political scientist and medico international project coordinator for the Middle East