Conditions must be right before Syrian refugees can return
The EU and UN this week led a two-day conference of countries in Brussels designed to support “the future of Syria and the region,” including pledging assistance for Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. While such aid is badly needed, longer-term efforts to end the civil war and create conditions for refugees to return are also essential.
As the states that have taken in the most refugees struggle to cope with the logistical, fiscal, economic, social and political effects of absorbing so many Syrians, conditions for refugees in those countries are becoming increasingly difficult. This is especially true in Lebanon, where political leaders have started to call for Syrian refugees to return to their country. In March, for example, Lebanese President Michel Aoun reportedly called on the international community to help return refugees to “safe areas” in Syria even without a political resolution to the war. Upcoming Lebanese elections in May are increasing political incentives for anti-refugee rhetoric, while pressures for refugees to return to Syria are also increasing in Turkey and Jordan.
As of April 12, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has registered more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees — 63 percent of whom are in Turkey, 18 percent in Lebanon and 12 percent in Jordan. However, the actual number of refugees in these countries is much higher, as many are not formally registered with the UN. These host countries have very real challenges in managing the huge numbers of Syrian refugees they have received, and international support has been insufficient. It is understandable that leaders and communities in these countries would be anxious for Syrians to go home.
However, calls for Syrian refugees to return to their country are premature. Many areas remain profoundly insecure. While some politicians have called for Syrian refugees to return to “de-escalation zones,” such zones offer questionable security, with multiple reports of attacks within them. Anecdotally, there have been cases of refugees who returned to Syria and died in the conflict or otherwise regretted their decision.
Furthermore, the Assad regime’s policies of intentional population displacement and recent regulations regarding property claims reduce the ability of refugees to return to their areas of origin. The even larger number of internally displaced people within Syria complicates any plans for those outside the country to return. The lack of the most basic economic opportunities, housing and services in general makes it difficult for refugees to go home, even when considering the deeply challenging circumstances many refugees face in their host countries.
A political resolution to Syria conflict and stable security are essential conditions to persuading refugees to voluntarily return.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
In formulating plans for refugees’ futures, it is important to consider what the refugees themselves view as the basic conditions under which they would voluntarily return to their country. On April 16, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center published a significant study looking at how Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan perceive the Syrian conflict and what they would require in order to return home.
The Carnegie study finds that most refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are not currently willing to return to Syria. A majority want to go home but only if they and their families would be safe. Most were reluctant to leave Syria in the first place and believed that their exile would last “only a few months.” However, today, as a group, they are pessimistic about the possibility of a voluntary return any time soon.
Most of the refugees that the Carnegie researchers interviewed opposed the Assad regime, and a majority of those say they would refuse to return to Syria as long as Bashar Assad remains in power. There is a complete lack of trust, and they have no confidence that they would be spared persecution or a renewal of conflict. While a “small number of anti-regime refugees indicated that they were resigned to the possibility of Assad’s presence” and would return if there were sufficient economic opportunities, most said they would not. Complicating matters, the study finds that the minority of refugees who were pro-regime said they would refuse to return unless Assad remained in power, meaning the two groups have directly conflicting preconditions.
The study finds that security and safety were the clear priority for most refugees. “Most focus group participants indicated that they would not go back unless political conditions were favorable, even if there were available jobs, services, and housing,” the study notes. Many refugees expressed a willingness to return and rebuild even without sufficient economic conditions, as long as safety was guaranteed.
Many refugees want to go back specifically to their places of origin within Syria. The Assad regime’s efforts to change the sectarian make-up of some parts of the country and its policies for refugees returning home and reclaiming property — such as requiring formal legal documents that many refugees lack and, according to media reports, destroying property records — further complicate potential returns. Additionally, many refugees no longer have a home to return to, as large amounts of housing have been destroyed in many areas.
Refugees’ concerns matter for many reasons, in addition to basic humanitarian interests. Governments that want refugees to go home — and countries, especially in Europe, that do not want future refugee flows — need to understand that a political resolution to the conflict and stable security are essential conditions to persuading Syrian refugees to voluntarily return. Without this, creating so-called safe zones or even providing more jobs and services inside Syria will be insufficient. If refugees are forced to return before the situation is safe, then neighboring states that might choose to deport refugees now will lay a foundation for instability and new refugee flows in the future.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch