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Syria and some host governments want refugees to go home. What do refugees think?

Research suggests this pressure won’t convince Syria’s 5.5 million refugees to return

Clothes are hung up to dry at a Syrian refugee camp in Marjayoun, southern Lebanon, in November. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)
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As winter approaches and the covid-19 pandemic intensifies throughout the Middle East, Syrian refugees face parallel threats of bitter cold, coronavirus outbreaks in refugee communities, and economic hardship because of widespread lockdowns. Today, after nearly a decade of war, more than 5.5 million Syrians live as refugees in neighboring countries, primarily in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

These refugees have faced enormous challenges, including stringent limitations on the ability to work legally, financial and political barriers to legal residency, and few opportunities for resettlement to a third country. In 2020, the pandemic and intermittent lockdowns exacerbated economic crises in Jordan and Lebanon, making it even more difficult for refugees to work formally or informally to pay for rent and basic needs.

But do Syrians want to return home, as many host governments are urging them to do? Our survey data helps explain why many refugees may be reluctant to head home.

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Refugees are under pressure to return to Syria

Though many governments believe the situation in Syria remains unsafe, Lebanon’s General Security intelligence branch has been organizing return trips for Syrians for more than a year. Lebanese authorities have long emphasized the importance that Syrians return promptly, blaming refugees for unemployment and inflation, overstretched public services and deep social tensions. In Jordan, the government has repeatedly expelled Syrians to a makeshift refugee camp in the no man’s land between Jordan and Syria.

Syria, eager for refugees to return, hosted a Russian-backed conference last month to discuss the matter. Officials from Iraq and Lebanon were among the attendees, though many Western and regional powers boycotted the event. During the conference, the Syrian government and its allies attacked the West for economic sanctions and lack of reconstruction aid, arguing these policies are preventing Syrians from returning. Some analysts countered that the conference appeared to be more about political posturing than helping Syrians return home.

In host countries like Lebanon, some political parties continue to push refugees to return home. These parties have long blamed the estimated 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon for many of the country’s problems, a stance that probably helps deflect attention away from government dysfunction and justify appeals for further international aid.

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What do refugees themselves want?

International refugee law requires that any return be safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable. So what do Syrian refugees themselves think about returning home? To date, much of the discussion around return has largely focused on geopolitical interests and tends to miss the critical perspective of Syrian refugees themselves.

To understand how Syrian refugees think about returning, we conducted a nationally representative survey, conducting face-to-face interviews with more than 3,000 Syrian refugee households in Lebanon between August and October 2019. The study reveals that while only 5 percent of refugees wanted to return within a year, the majority of refugees (63 percent) hoped to return at some point.

We also wanted to find out what influences people’s decision about return. Many refugee-hosting governments around the world limit refugees’ right to work and make it difficult to access legal residency and full protections under the law. These measures are in part based on a widespread presumption that if refugees find life in a host country difficult, they are more likely to return home. To test this implicit theory, we analyzed data from our large sample of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as well as results from an embedded experiment within the survey.

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Refugees pay close attention to the situation in Syria

Our study finds that conditions in Syria are the most important factors in the decision to return — not conditions in Lebanon, the host country for these refugees. Respondents cared most about their physical safety and security in their place of origin. Syrians are not only weighing the threat of persecution by the Assad government, including forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, but also compulsory military conscription, tight economic conditions and the lack of public services.

Syrians who reported suffering from difficult conditions in Lebanon — including lack of work, precarious housing, insufficient humanitarian aid and widespread discrimination — were no more likely to say they plan to return. The choice to continue living in exile is difficult, but apparently still clear for most Syrians in Lebanon: They don’t want to return home before conditions in Syria meaningfully improve. As one Syrian woman from Aleppo told us: “My country is at war, so we cannot return. But here [in Lebanon], we cannot live.”

Policies aiming to push refugees home prematurely are unlikely to work

These results suggest efforts to prematurely push Syrian refugees to return home are unlikely to be successful. This includes recent steps by the Syrian regime and its backers — Russia, in particular — to use the issue of return as a bargaining chip, insisting Western donors remove economic sanctions and provide reconstruction aid to Syria before widespread refugee return will be possible.

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Syria’s neighbors have faced major policy and political challenges over nearly a decade of hosting millions of refugees, and the pandemic adds further economic pressures. The Biden administration’s plan to expand the number of refugees resettled to the United States annually may help ease these pressures, but the proposed resettlement of up to 125,000 refugees each year would still be only a small fraction of Syria’s many refugees.

Looking ahead to 2021, refugees and local communities in host countries probably will continue to rely on humanitarian organizations for help. Cash assistance and development projects can offer sustainable job opportunities for both communities, and help reduce host-refugee tensions. As our survey results suggest, policies that make life difficult for refugees — or encourage refugees to return — are largely ineffective at forcing Syrians to return home.

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Ala’ Alrababa’h is a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University and a graduate fellow at the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University.

Marine Casalis is a program manager at the Immigration Policy Lab at ETH Zurich.

Daniel Masterson is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a faculty affiliate with the Immigration Policy Lab.