Security crucial for Syrian refugees returning home

Security is the biggest issue and that includes human and property rights.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Limited options. Lebanese security forces check identity and papers of Syrian refugees getting ready to cross into Syria from the Lebanese eastern town of Arsal, last June. (AFP)
Limited options. Lebanese security forces check identity and papers of Syrian refugees getting ready to cross into Syria from the Lebanese eastern town of Arsal, last June. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Restoration of basic services, such as water and electricity, in Syria will not inspire refugees to return home if those resources don’t come with security, World Bank experts said.

That assessment was made even as “there is some kind of imperfect stabilisation in the region,” said Harun Onder, a senior economist in the Middle East and North Africa region of the World Bank.

He said the Syrian GDP was expected to grow 9.9% in 2019 but “It’s important to put that in perspective,” Onder said.

An improved economy could affect the entire region, so economists wondered whether trade could bounce back with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and would those countries recover some of their losses as Syria’s economy potentially improves.

“We quickly realised much depends on whether the refugees will go back,” Onder said.

Onder worked with the UN refugee agency to study the reasons refugees, from Syria as well as from other countries, return to their homeland after being displaced by conflict. From 2015-18, about 100,000 Syrian refugees chose to return home.

Onder is the senior author of a World Bank report, “The Mobility of Displaced Syrians: An Economic and Social Analysis.” He presented the report’s conclusions at the Middle East Institute forum.

“When people are displaced by conflict, they have no options,” Saroj Kumar Jha, regional director of the Mashreq Region at the World Bank said March 5 at a Middle East Institute forum in Washington. “Once they are displaced, they have options.”

Often in their host countries, refugees live among the general population rather than in refugee camps. Decisions about whether to return home can encompass whether there’s anything to return home to if houses have been ransacked or destroyed, if there are jobs to provide a living, if there is access to necessities, including health care, how many people in a family unit will need to be relocated and if they will need to worry about forced conscription or whether they could be killed or jailed when they return home.

The World Bank team focused on economic repercussions, such as the degradation of trust in institutions, in social trust or in business relationships. The researchers said those factors were “20 times more important” than physical destruction when estimating economic damage.

World Bank researchers said two assumed truths were false. First, people tend to believe that Syrians would choose to go to Lebanon and Jordan if they could, even if there wasn’t a conflict.

“This is not true,” Onder said. “It’s a safe environment at the expense of quality of life.”

Syria, Jordan and Lebanon have similar relatively high rates of poverty, so the Syrian refugees aren’t more likely to fare better by leaving home, Onder said.

“They’re paying for it,” he said, referring to the Syrian refugees. “It’s costly for them to be there.”

Syrian children are more likely to go to school in Syria than as refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, which means their prospects are worse if they leave home, he said. As refugees, they tend to drop out of school early to get married or earn money and this will be the case “for generations going forward,” he said.

The second disproved truth is that “people think if we make refugees’ lives miserable, they will go back,” Onder said. “This is a popular misconception. It is not true.”

If refugees have access to even one extra meal per day, they’re 15% more likely to return home, he said.

Security is the biggest issue and that includes human and property rights, he said.

“People won’t return home if they fear being arrested or being forcibly taken into the army,” Onder said. “You can inject money into the economy but most of it will be wasted.”

Mona Yacoubian, executive director of the congressionally mandated Syria Study Group, said about 5.6 million people have been displaced by the war in Syria, “the most significant displacement crisis since the end of World

War II. Refugees displaced by conflict spend an average of 17-25 years in their host countries, she said.

Even if refugees return to Syria, they may not stay there, she said. In 2018, 254,000 refugees went to the Turkey-controlled and relatively stable Operation Euphrates Shield area on the border of Turkey. However, she said 194,000 of them returned to Turkey the same year.

“It’s not just returns,” she said. “It’s sustainable returns.”

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