In a nutshell
Any political settlement should embed a refugee-focused policy that addresses holistically the main challenges in terms of security and access to justice for the refugee community.
Transitional justice mechanisms are needed to address local grievances, including atrocities committed during the conflicts.
Any political agreement must rest on the principle of refugees’ right to choose, given that in the event of absence of security guarantees, refugees will refrain from moving back and host countries will have to force them if they wish them to be repatriated.
We are witnessing a new outbreak of violence in Syria in the aftermath of the withdrawal of US troops from Northern Syria in October 2019, which has cleared the way for Turkish-backed troops to occupy the region.
For Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sending troops across the border cannot be only considered a matter of repelling the Kurds, whom the Turks view as a threat to their stability. It is also a way to resolve the refugee crisis in his own country by carving out a safe zone with a view to starting to repatriate some of the 3.6 million Syrians who fled to Turkey.
Nevertheless, with the official Syrian troops moving in with the support of Russia very few refugees will voluntarily accept their return. It seems likely that repatriation can only be realised when the restoration of protection and the rebuilding of a social contract are ensured.
This example, along with events in Yemen in recent weeks, signal the importance of the focus of the 2019 Euromed report on the prospects for repatriation of refugees from Arab conflicts (FEMISE-ERF, 2019).
At a time of mounting conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the refugee question has acquired a nuclear role. Assuming that Syria accounts for nearly 23% of the world’s refugees and that resettlement has always been a relatively rare option with only 1% of global refugees, repatriation to their countries of origin or integration within their host communities remain the only viable options.
Against this backdrop, the Euromed report discusses the notion of inclusive political settlements as a precondition for safe refugee repatriation and reconstruction plans for devastated communities. The equation is not so simple nor linear, as sustainable political settlements to end conflicts in countries that are deeply affected by refugee exoduses, as with Syria, will not be possible without a real focus on the challenges of refugee returns.
The complexities of the Syrian war as well as previous international experiences with similar conflicts underscore that ensuring long-term peace requires a more focused attention on the challenges for effective repatriation of refugees and internally displaced persons, including significant security and protection guarantees. Without the latter, and irrespective of the eventual shape of a political solution, their return may be neither possible nor sustainable, which will have significant repercussions for peace, not only in the country itself but also in neighbouring countries.
The notion of political settlement was not used in development studies until 2007 when it was understood that in the event of conflict resolution, the necessary legitimacy for those who govern over those who are ruled can only come from an agreement that binds together state and society. This is a meaningful question in the context of today’s reality in the MENA region, considering the increasingly widespread waves of political turmoil and conflict.
On the basis of the two examined practical cases – Algeria and Lebanon – political settlements have not always encompassed a combination of horizontal and vertical negotiations among elites and followers; they have not always encompassed a full understanding of the root causes triggering the conflict; nor have they embarked on transitional justice, in contrast with what we have observed elsewhere, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
The consequences of the absence of fully legitimated political settlements might lead to mounting grievances that erode the prospects for further democratisation. It is no coincidence that during these recent months and even weeks, both countries whose processes of conflict resolution have been examined in the Euromed report – Algeria and Lebanon – have been experiencing severe difficulties in the realm of public governance at very different levels and triggered by various factors. Indeed, they have become the two most unstable countries in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean if we exclude those that are already trapped in military conflicts.
These cases show how the question of refugees is central to any potential political settlement. In this regard, access to justice has to be provided to refugees as part of any political settlement. Transitional justice mechanisms are needed to address local grievances, including atrocities committed during the conflicts such as massacres, forced disappearances, sieges of towns and population transfers that occurred as elements of local peace deals.
Arguably, whereas repatriation is the favoured option of host states, return of refugees should be voluntary, as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. To that end, any political agreement must rest on the principle of refugees’ right to choose, given that in the event of absence of security guarantees, refugees will refrain from moving back and host countries will have to force them if they wish them to be repatriated.
To sum up, and most importantly, any political settlement should embed a refugee focused policy that addresses holistically the main challenges in terms of security and access to justice for the refugee community.
Last but not least, on the way to reconstruction, the international community can play a very relevant role, particularly if reconstruction is fostered to promote the safe return of refugees, alongside political reform that helps to mitigate potential discrimination against certain groups on the basis of ethnic, political ideology, gender or religion.
From this point of view, the Euromed report assesses the role that global and regional powers can play in this process, concluding that in the case of Syria, only Western powers can offer significant support to promote political reform and protect the rights of refugee population. Looking at the current US policy of retreat in the region, the EU is the only real power placed to facilitate such process, not only targeting Syria but also Jordan and Lebanon, as has been the case so far.
FEMISE-ERF (2019) ‘Repatriation of Refugees from Arab Conflicts: Conditions, Costs and Scenarios for Reconstruction’, Euromed report.