Syrian refugees are not going home anytime soon

Most Syrian refugees are unwilling to return to their home country unless certain conditions are fulfilled.
Sunday 22/04/2018
A pregnant Syrian woman carries her child at a  compound housing Syrian refugees in Sidon in southern Lebanon. (Reuters)
Not home. A pregnant Syrian woman carries her child at a compound housing Syrian refugees in Sidon in southern Lebanon. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - With the Assad regime regaining control over much of Syria, calls have been rising in neighbouring countries, notably Lebanon and Jordan, for refugees to go home.

However, a study by Carnegie’s Middle East Centre (MEC) stated that, despite the increasingly difficult challenges they face, most Syrian refugees are unwilling to return to their home country unless certain conditions are fulfilled: Guarantees of safety and security, the right to return to their hometowns, access to justice and employment opportunities.

The study said refugees have no confidence in so-called safe or de-escalation zones and feel trapped between host countries that do not want them and a Syria to which they feel they cannot return.

“While refugees may want to go home, safety is their number one concern,” said Maha Yahya, director of Beirut-based Carnegie MEC and one of the study’s authors. “Creating an environment that refugees would feel safe returning to is very important. They want to recuperate their properties and return to their areas of origin, it is not about going back to anywhere in Syria.”

Yahya said efforts to end the 7-year-old conflict in Syria, whether through the UN-led Geneva process or the Astana talks co-sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, were failing to account for refugees’ attitudes, concerns and basic conditions for returning home.

“These (peace processes) are more of a window dressing for the continuation of the conflict,” Yahya said. “One of the reasons we did this project was to put the voices of refugees up, front and centre.

“If we want a stable Syria and a stable region then this (refugees’ concern) has to be at the heart of any discussions for a political settlement, otherwise we are going to have an unstable region for a very long time.”

It is highly unlikely that refugees will return the moment a peace deal is signed, said the study, which included interviews and field-based focus group discussions with refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. It showed that women and young men are most fearful of returning to Syria under the Assad regime, fearing persecution, arrests and forced male conscription.

“Today, everyone who leaves Syria is considered a traitor,” a young refugee in Beirut said, reflecting the young people’s fear of return.

Legal obstacles are also in the way of refugee repatriation. Local vetting procedures for returnees and the regime’s legislative frameworks for the recovery of private property or the development of neighbourhoods could make it nearly impossible for them to recover their homes and resume a normal life.

While the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has failed to set a strategy for the repatriation of refugees, the regime’s survival continues to represent a principal obstacle to return.

“Engaging whatever Syrian government (is in power) to take back the refugees is very much… a political decision and has to be part and parcel of whatever political transition (takes place),” Yahya said.

“The right of return of Syrian refugees should have the urgent attention of the international community. Also, the detainees, the disappeared, property rights, et cetera… All these have to be part of a political discussion around the end of the conflict.”

The war in Syria has generated the largest refugee crisis in recent history. More than 5.5 million Syrians fled the country and another 6.1 million are internally displaced. Only 15% of the refugees live in Europe and North America. The rest are in neighbouring countries — approximately 3 million in Turkey, more than 1 million in Lebanon and 659,000 in Jordan.

Unlike Lebanon and Jordan where they are subject to growing discrimination, isolation and marginalisation, Syrian refugees in Turkey are socially accepted and integrated, experts said.

“Turkey has had almost no problem with the refugees,” said Murat Erdogan, the director of the Turkish German University’s Migration and Integration Research Centre. “We are trying to establish a peaceful life together. It is very important for our peaceful future that the refugees get their rights in the host countries until they can go back.”

“It is for our security and the future of a peaceful Turkey that we have to integrate refugee children and youth in the Turkish education system and the social security system. It is very important because they constitute a huge number and otherwise we would have ghettos and then it will be a big danger forever,” Erdogan said.

The Turkish government has granted citizenship to 50,000 Syrian refugees to integrate skilled workers, Erdogan said, noting that more than 350,000 Syrian babies had been born in Turkey since 2011.

“These babies have neither Syrian citizenship nor Turkish citizenship, which makes it even more problematic for their families to go back,” he said. “Even if the war ends and Assad is dead, it will not change too much, especially for refugees in Turkey. Many will stay. That’s a reality.”