But if governments are going to craft an effective response, it would be helpful to know who has left, why they’ve left now, and how many more are likely on their way.
To find out, we conducted a survey in Turkey, asking refugees why they decided to leave Syria and what they hope for the future. We find that for most refugees and would-be asylum-seekers, the decision to leave Syria is a simple cost-benefit calculation. As the conflict drags on, ordinary people inside Syria see fewer prospects for a negotiated settlement or an outright military victory by any side. Those already in refugee camps in neighboring countries are losing hope of ever returning home, and are increasingly seeking alternatives to the purgatory of camp life.
The path to Europe
Since 2011, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) estimates that more than 3 million refugees have fled the conflict to camps in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, with millions more internally displaced.
Until recently, few refugees had ventured much further. The UNHCR estimates that only (only!) 350,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum in EU countries, most of whom are going to Germany and Sweden. The United States has been criticized for taking in fewer than 2,000 asylum seekers, but European states are also increasingly turning to fences and police barricades to stem the ceaseless flow of refugees into or across their territories, especially on the periphery of the Schengen Area, within which people can move freely among European nations without internal border controls.
The refugees hail from Syria, from Islamic State-controlled territory in Iraq, and from more distant conflict-ridden places like Afghanistan, Libya, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Their journey to Europe is perilous and often tragic. Of the nearly half million migrants estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean this year, nearly 3,000 have drowned. But more keep coming; Germany is preparing for the possibility that more than 800,000 will arrive in the next year.
Why do civilians leave Syria?
Our survey finds that civilian refugees are applying a simple cost-benefit analysis to decide whether to leave. We asked civilians in a UNHCR refugee camp in Turkey to check all the reasons they decided to leave Syria (see figure, below). More than half (57 percent) of ordinary civilians say that they left because it is simply too dangerous to stay; 41 percent say this is also the main reason they left.
Others give more elaborate versions of the same reason. Some left because the Assad government occupied their towns (43 percent) or destroyed their homes (32 percent) or because they were threatened with violence if they did not leave (35 percent). Many left at the urging of family (48 percent) and friends (38 percent) or following the lead from their neighbors (32 percent). Others point to the increasingly high costs of finding even basic access to food and other necessities (32 percent) and left once they finally ran out of money (16 percent).
Why do fighters leave Syria?
Some of those leaving Syria are ex-fighters, whom we also interviewed (see figure, below). Ex-fighters, who could be potentially punishment for desertion if caught fleeing, are leaving for different reasons than civilians. The moderate fighters are doing so primarily for one of three reasons.
First, some fighters understood their own limitations. Seventy percent realized that they are not very good at fighting, 51 percent mentioned that fighting was too emotionally stressful and 49 percent decided that risks associated with combat were just not worth it. For instance one fighter from Ja’far alTayyar group in Deir ez-Zor had fought for four years, but left in 2014. He said, “After my fourth injury, after I lost my brother and all my friends in the brigade, and there were no more Syrians left in my city, it became very emotionally hard for me to stay and I decided that nothing is holding me back now and it is time to leave.”
Second, some fighters become frustrated with their brigades. Sixty-five percent of respondents reported that they left in part because of bad leadership, 59 percent said their brigades lacked discipline, and 52 percent thought that they were no longer working as a team.
Finally, 48 percent of the ex-fighters we interviewed had given up on the cause. They felt that it was impossible to win and no longer worth the risk.
Not all ex-fighters we interviewed, however, were willing to give up the fight. Some left for Turkey because they were wounded and needed treatment. For example, a fighter with the group “Fajr AlIslam” in Yabroud who left in 2014 recalls:
After the end of ‘Alsehel’ battle with Shia’a militias, and after the regime took control of the villages around our positions, I was thinking: What remains to fight for? I lost my right hand to a sniper shot, and when I was bleeding no one could help, because we simply did not have enough people. We were always very close to the enemy, but we only had Kalashinkovs (AK47s), while the enemy had tanks and planes. I felt that God’s angels were helping us, but rationally I thought: What can a left handed man do, in front of this tanks! Nothing … so I found a way to get out of the city, and ended up opening a small restaurant to sell falafel in Istanbul. Now the only thing I am fighting for is the food for my kids.
Will they ever return to Syria?
Many civilians in the camps see nothing left for them to return to in Syria. Their homes have been occupied, looted, or destroyed. They have exhausted their savings, and there is no end in sight to the violence that compelled them to flee. At the same time, life in the refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon offers very few prospects for the future. Those outside the camps still find little opportunity for work and have depleted much of their savings. These are the people who are primarily making their way to Europe today.
Surely, some ex-rebel fighters are also making the trek to Europe along with them. Some Europeans have raised concerns about whether jihadists will use the refugee crisis to infiltrate Europe to carry out future attacks.
The ex-fighters we interviewed are of two varieties. One group is demoralized and done with fighting. Like civilians, they seek Europe as an escape from the war and a path to a better life than in the camps.
Another group is also deeply demoralized but would return to the fight in Syria if prospects for winning were better. Forty-three percent say they would fight again if they thought they could really win, but were demoralized by their brigade’s disorganization and lack of discipline. Fifty-six percent would consider going back if the group had better leaders, 48 percent if they were paid more for fighting, and 30 percent if there were less corruption.
Many also see Western intervention in the conflict as a potential game changer that could tip the balance in their favor. A strong majority of ex-fighters, 76 percent, claim that they would fight again if the West were to intervene militarily. Russia has already increased its military presence with a forward operating base near the Assad-controlled town of Latakia. The United States also continues air strikes against the Islamic State and al-Nusra controlled territory, and has initiated several half-hearted attempts to train and equip rebel brigades with little success. In recent days, France has announced that it too would join the air campaign against the Islamic State to aid moderate rebel forces who are pinned down in Aleppo.
While such efforts may inspire some former fighters to return, we believe that increased Western military intervention will do little to stem refugee flows from Syria in the short-term.
Over the next year, Syrian refugees will continue to risk life and limb to find sanctuary and asylum in Europe. No fences or border patrols are likely to stop them for long. Western intervention in the conflict is too little too late to turn back most of the refugee tide. Syria has been destroyed by four years of horrific violence and offers them little to return to.
Edit 9/28, 5:26: The following paragraph gives some more detail on the survey:
Because we are targeting difficult to reach subpopulations in an environment with unknown population parameters, we utilize cluster sampling methods to better target sub-populations of interest. A total of 256 civilian refugees and rebel ex-fighters took part in the study. Refugees were interviewed in a UNHCR camp in Kilis Turkey in January 2014, where interviewers followed a random route, randomly selecting 1 person per household to interview, and no more than 5 interviews on a given street or pathway. Ex-fighters were interviewed in and around Gaziantep Turkey in two waves (October-November 2014 and January-March 2015). Interviewers randomly selected no more than 5 members from a given unit or brigade to interview. These refugees and ex-fighters are subsamples of a broader study on rebel group participation and refugee flight that began in August 2013 and is ongoing. Readers should refrain from making population inferences from these data, which are for exploratory purposes only.
Vera Mironova is an International Security Project fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Karam Alhamad is a freelance journalist working in Turkey and Syria. Sam Whitt is assistant professor of political science at High Point University in North Carolina.