When I heard Denmark had declared parts of Syria ‘safe’, I thought about what would happen if I returned to the country of my birth. I am sure that if I did, I would immediately be taken to prison and disappeared like hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Or I might be tortured to death. Because ten years after the conflict in Syria began, the Assad regime is still in power.
I come from the city of Darayya, which is about 20 minutes outside of Damascus. When I was growing up, if you criticised as much as the power shortages, you could end up in prison. In 2003, some of my friends organised a campaign against littering because the streets were filthy and posed with mops and brooms. They were arrested by the regime and held for three years.
You couldn’t even organise a wedding without getting permission from the security services. When peaceful demonstrations against the regime began in March 2011, they happened after Friday prayers — because that was the only time people were allowed to gather.
At first, the army used rubber bullets against the protests. Then they used live rounds. I will never forget how, in April 2011, we began to see tanks at the entrance of our city and were told we weren’t allowed to leave. In August 2012, the army raided the city and killed over 1,000 people over three nights. They slaughtered men in front of their mothers and wives. I saw this with my own eyes.
The Assad regime and its Russian allies bombarded rebel-held towns. Still, although I was afraid for the lives of my parents and my brothers and sisters, I didn’t leave home. I only left when the regime arrested three of my friends as I was walking to join them. By mere chance, I called the first of those friends and they used a secret word meaning ‘it’s over’ to warn me before it was too late. These three friends were held in prison for nearly a year.
After that, I couldn’t stay. I became what international organisations call an ‘internally displaced person’, moving from farmhouse to farmhouse to evade the regime. Finally, I made it out of Syria in 2013, first to Lebanon, then Egypt, before moving on to Turkey. I sought refuge in the UK two years ago and have been campaigning on behalf of victims of the Assad regime since 2011.
So no, refugees don’t only flee bombardment and war. They flee persecution, arbitrary detention and tyranny. They flee when they see their friends arrested and neighbours murdered.
Syria isn’t safe — not for opponents of the government. My brother remains detained in Syria, along with 100,000 others, 85 per cent of which are held in the Assad regime’s jails. No one is bombing Iran, but I have friends who have fled and cannot return because they would be sent to detention centres for criticising the government. Or take Russian opposition leaders. They too face assassination or imprisonment on trumped up charges.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention, which defines a refugee as someone with 'a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion'.
Actions like that of Denmark show that the definition of 'refugee' is under threat. It seems the international community thinks because the war in Syria is over, it is a place that is ready for refugees to return to. I wish.