Over the past week, thousands of Syrian refugees have left the Aarsal region of Lebanon for Idlib governorate in northern Syria, and thousands more are expected to follow. So far, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross have not been able to confirm the voluntary nature of the returns or monitor what has happened to the refugees upon arrival in Syria.
In light of the uncertainty surrounding these returns, we remind all parties that refugee returns in all circumstances must be voluntary, safe and dignified, in accordance with international standards.
Our concerns about possible lack of informed consent in the return process are heightened by the fundamental question of whether Syria — and particular areas inside Syria — are safe. The Syrians are reportedly returning to Idlib governorate, which is currently understood to have a significant jihadist presence.
Unless and until the nature of the returns can be verified, they should be halted. International agencies should be allowed to verify the voluntariness and safety of the process, as well as the appropriateness of Idlib as an area of return.