You Can’t Go Home Again: Pressures and Prospects of Refugee Return to Syria
By: Adam Lichtenheld
As the civil war in Syria enters its final phase, Syrian refugees face growing pressure to return home. President Bashar al-Assad has publicly appealed for refugees to come back to areas of the country recaptured by the regime. Assad and his backers, particularly Russia, see refugee return as a major boost to the regime’s legitimacy and a bargaining chip in its quest for international recognition and reconstruction funds. Syria’s neighbors are more than eager to offload the burden of caring for millions of exiled Syrians and face little resistance from the U.S. and Europe, whose leaders continue to discourage irregular migration. For many, the return process seems to represent a welcome end to the worst refugee crisis in a generation. But it only represents the next stage of the crisis – one that raises significant humanitarian concerns.
Refugee return will be the primary focus of peace talks on the Syrian conflict convened by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, which are scheduled to take place later this month. With the regime and its allies having regained control over most of Syria, the U.N. estimated last December that 250,000 refugees could return to the country in 2019. This projection seems to have been overly optimistic, as only 8,000 people have returned so far this year. Many Syrian refugees do face increasingly inhospitable conditions in, and even deportation from, host countries in the region. Yet those who have gone back to Syria have found destroyed homes, a scarcity of services, few job opportunities, and a lack of rule of law. Thousands have reportedly been detained or jailed in the government’s barbaric torture prisons. Returning more refugees prematurely would likely jeopardize their safety, overwhelm humanitarian actors struggling to care for the millions of internally displaced Syrians, and further destabilize the country and the region. The U.N., along with the U.S. and its allies, must resist attempts to pressure Syrians to return. If it is not handled carefully, the return process could ignite another displacement crisis – fuelling the very outcome that policymakers, diplomats, and humanitarians are attempting to prevent.
Beyond the humanitarian and security implications, the return of Syrian refugees is a litmus test of the integrity of a global refugee system that is struggling to contend with a record number of people fleeing war and persecution worldwide. That the discussion over return has come on the heels of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) is therefore fitting. Given that the GCR makes clear that supporting conditions in refugees’ countries of origin so they can return safely is a priority, Syria presents an opportunity for the international community to show that it is committed to making the principles of the compact a reality.
More than 5.5 million Syrians have fled their homeland, along with 6.5 million who have been internally displaced. A vast majority of those who left Syria ended up in neighboring countries. Last summer, after regime forces made substantial military gains in southern Syria, the Russian government announced a strategy to begin facilitating refugee return – one that it attempted to revive just last week. Syria’s neighbors Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – which together host some 5.2 million Syrians – have demonstrated an increased willingness to either cooperate with the Assad regime in brokering the return of refugees, or to take drastic measures to encourage or even coerce refugees into returning.
Pressure to Return from Host Countries
In Jordan, the influx of 1.4 million Syrians has strained the economy and social services. Despite the signing the Jordan Compact, which was intended to improve economic opportunities for refugees, relatively few Syrians in Jordan have received work permits. Since 2016, the Jordanian government has deported Syrian refugees without due process, and last year it cut health subsidies for Syrians by 60 percent.
Similar trends have unfolded in Turkey, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees. The Turkish government has issued work permits to only 1 percent of the working-age refugee population, and it has started dismantling refugee camps and shutting down humanitarian and other nongovernmental organizations in increasing numbers. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed a 250 kilometer-long “safe zone” in northeastern Syria that would supposedly allow up to one million Syrians to go back to their country. Turkish forces have deported refugees to Idlib province and other parts of northern Syria, where it maintains another safe zone. Because Idlib and northeast Syria remain under rebel control, the prospects for the voluntary return of refugees from Turkey is particularly low. Erdogan is also concerned that a regime offensive in Idlib, which began in May, could trigger a fresh wave of Syrians fleeing towards the Turkish border, providing further motivation to expedite the return of refugees.
In Lebanon, 74 percent of its estimated 950,000 Syrian refugees lack legal residency. They therefore do not have the right to work and routinely face evictions, arrests and detentions, curfews, and discrimination. Lebanese authorities are also making a greater push for refugees to go home, having demolished refugee shelters under the terms of a recent military decree and arranged for hundreds of Syrians to return in coordination with the Assad regime. These efforts are particularly alarming because they have not been overseen by UNHCR or other international agencies, raising protection concerns. A report by Amnesty International released last month confirmed that refugees in Lebanon are increasingly pushed back to Syria “through a combination of restrictive government policies, dire humanitarian conditio, s and rampant discrimination.” Unlike Turkey, Lebanon does not have the capacity to establish “safe zones” in Syria, but the prospects for voluntary return may be greater since Lebanon has been the preferred destination for Assad supporters.
Barriers to Return
Surveys of refugees who have gone back to Syria show that returns are driven more by push factors in these host countries than pull factors luring them home. The pressures imposed by Syria’s neighbors have made life in exile even more precarious, yet the fact that this has not resulted in a mass exodus is indicative of how dire conditions remain in Syria. Refugees face three main barriers to return.
The first is security. Many refugees are wanted by the regime or considered traitors for leaving, so they fear arrest or harassment by the government’s ubiquitous intelligence service. Men returning to government-held areas also face mandatory military conscription. Moreover, due to the hollowing out of the Syrian army, many recaptured areas are overseen by local or foreign militias allied with the regime – such as Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a militias and Hezbollah – that operate with impunity. These security concerns have led many refugees to predicate their return on a comprehensive political solution to the conflict. Yet other threats to physical security remain. Unexploded ordinance, for example, continues to litter many neighborhoods in Syria.
The second barrier to return relates to housing. Because of the sheer level of destruction in Syria, many people no longer have a place to return. Regime forces continue to level properties in opposition strongholds as part of “military clearance” operations. Last year, the government introduced a law allowing it to redevelop areas that are not claimed by property owners. Refugees wanting to reclaim property are required to do so in person. Generally, to return to homes in regime areas, returnees must submit legal documentation (which many lack) and undergo a security check by local authorities (which many fear). Screening potential returnees has allowed the regime to control who can come back, and when – one of several tools it has used to control refugee return.
The third barrier is economic. Years of war have caused massive inflation, crippled markets, and resulted in shortages in fuel and electricity. Trade remains restricted by Western sanctions. Most Syrians live in poverty and education and employment prospects are dim. Reconstructing the country will cost at least $250 billion, far more than what the government and its allies can afford. Any meaningful reconstruction will, therefore, require broad international support, yet American and European governments refuse to fund reconstruction if Assad stays in power, which seems increasingly likely.
Conclusion and Recommendations
In sum, given the substantial barriers to return, it is unlikely that many refugees will voluntarily go back to Syria in the near future. Moreover, the regime will continue to exert control over the return process, which will likely leave some in limbo indefinitely. On the other hand, life for many Syrians in neighboring host countries is increasingly tenuous. Direct and indirect pressures could therefore compel them to return before they would prefer, and the humanitarian consequences could be severe.
Looking ahead, the likely outcome of the Syrian conflict – in which a complete regime victory seems inevitable – raises the specter of further displacement. The battle for Idlib has already uprooted thousands and could uproot millions as the fighting intensifies and spreads. Retaking the province would allow Assad to put pressure on Turkey to withdraw from parts of northern Syria it secured under Operation Euphrates Shield, which would imperil the 260,000 Syrians who have returned to live in the Turkish-administered safe zone. The international community must, therefore, focus not on increasing return, but on ensuring the well-being of Syrian refugees no matter where they are.
To Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey:
- Respect the principle of non-refoulment.
- Honor commitments made in the Jordan Compact, and at conferences in London and Brussels, relating to expanding employment and education opportunities for refugees.
- Continue registering refugees and provide them with temporary status.
- Ensure any refugee return coordinated with the Syrian government meets certain human rights and protection standards.
Donor Governments and Agencies (EU, U.S., U.N.)
- Engage Russia on a return agenda conditional on Moscow using its leverage over the Syrian government to ensure certain human rights and protection standards are met as part of a coordinated return process. These standards should be linked to specific measures that can be undertaken to reduce barriers to return.
- Work with international agencies and governments to fund refugees’ basic needs in host countries while upholding the principle of voluntary, safe, and dignified return.
- Support peace negotiations and emphasize to all stakeholders that return cannot precede a political settlement.
- Forge deals with Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey to minimize pressure on Syrians to return and ensure durable solutions for refugees in exchange for increased humanitarian and development funding. Improving the residency status of Syrians in Lebanon and their work status in Turkey and Jordan should be a specific focus.
- Support projects aimed at fostering social cohesion between refugees and host communities in the region.
- Ensure gender mainstreaming in humanitarian and development programming prioritizes women and girls’ empowerment and access to services.
- Increase the resettlement of Syrian refugees.