Since 2011, some five million Syrians have fled from the armed conflict in their homeland and sought refuge abroad, the largest numbers of them going to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But that massive exodus has now slowed to a trickle, and there are growing signs that some of the refugees may be ready to return to Syria.
In July, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that up to 450,000 uprooted Syrians had returned to their places of origin in the first six months of the year. While the vast majority of this number had been displaced within Syria, the organization said that it had also monitored the return of more than 30,000 refugees from neighbouring countries during the same period. There was, UNHCR concluded, ‘a notable trend of spontaneous returns to and within Syria.’
Other agencies concur with this assessment. According to NGOs working in the region, in June, around 200 refugees were repatriating each day from Turkey to Jarabulus in northern Syria, an area liberated from ISIS by Turkish-backed rebels. In the same month, an additional 30,000 refugees crossed the border into Syria to celebrate the end of Ramadan, most of them then returning to Turkey.
These developments have served the interests of several key stakeholders in the Syrian refugee situation. Jordan and Lebanon have long tired of the refugees’ presence on their territory, citing the unbearable pressure that it places on their economy, environment and infrastructure, as well as the threat that the Syrians allegedly pose to local and national security. Both countries have effectively closed their borders to new arrivals from Syria, and are increasingly anxious to see the day when those who have already been admitted make their way home in large numbers.
Donor states (most notably the EU and US) also have an interest in talking up the potential for repatriation to take place. They have expended enormous amounts of money on providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees, and yet are under constant pressure from the three host states to increase the level of aid they provide and to extend it to local communities affected by the refugees’ presence.
The Trump administration has made it clear that the plight of Syrian refugees will not be resolved by means of their resettlement to the US, thereby placing greater emphasis on repatriation as a solution. And Western powers as a whole are much more ready to contemplate refugees’ return to Syria now that they have effectively dropped the objective of regime change in Damascus.
UNHCR’s response to this situation has been both finely balanced and potentially contradictory. On one hand, and in accordance with its mandate to protect the world’s displaced people, it has continued to assert that ‘conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place’. Given the ‘significant risks’ that remain in Syria, it says, ‘refugee returns can neither be promoted [n]or facilitated by UNHCR.’
One the other hand, UNHCR’S approach has been influenced by three additional considerations: its high level of dependence on Western funding; its recognition of the need to retain the confidence of those states hosting large numbers of Syrians; and an awareness that it will be expected to play a central role in organizing the return of the refugees, if and when it takes place.
UNHCR has consequently been engaged in a discreet repatriation planning process, while raising the funds and recruiting the staff required to scale up its operations inside Syria. In the careful words of one announcement, ‘UNHCR is pursuing a number of preparatory steps in anticipation of the time when conditions for the voluntary repatriation of refugees are in place.’
It seems highly unlikely that those conditions will be attained in the foreseeable future.
First, Syria remains a country at war. Peace talks have stalled and some of the fiercest battles (in the rebel-held area of Idlib, for example) remain to be fought. Recent surveys indicate that while most of the refugees would eventually like to return to their own country, they will do so only when the armed conflict has come to an end.
And while some refugees may have already chosen to return, they have often done so in the absence of accurate information on the situation inside Syria, because they feel exhausted and humiliated by their lives in exile, and because the option of moving on to Europe has become increasingly difficult.
Second, large-scale refugee returns to Syria would not be sustainable because of the destruction and disruption that the country has experienced during six years of war. Around 14 million of the country’s 18 million residents are in need of humanitarian assistance. Eight million are displaced within the country and more than four million are trapped in besieged and inaccessible areas.
Jobs, food, water, shelter, healthcare and education are all in acutely short supply, but none of the key players in the Syria situation – the EU, US, Russia and Iran – seem willing or able to fund the country’s reconstruction, especially if President Assad remains in power. In the words of the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘some people speak about a Marshall Plan for Syria, but this will not happen if there is no political consensus.’
Finally, the Assad regime has little interest in the return of the refugees. Indeed, Damascus has manipulated the exodus in order to diminish the Sunni presence in economically and strategically important parts of the country, thereby strengthening the position of the government-supporting Alawites and Christians As one commentator puts it, ‘reducing the size of the Sunni majority looks as if it is the regime’s best shot at creating the conditions to make minority rule more sustainable.’
While host and donor states might wish for a quick solution to the Syrian refugee situation, that is not a realistic option. Until peace returns to the country, it will be necessary to provide refugees with the cash and other forms of assistance that they need to survive, while ensuring that development organizations, financial institutions, the private sector and Syrian diaspora support the economy and infrastructure of those areas where the largest number of refugees have settled.
When refugee returns finally become possible, it must take place in a safe and voluntary manner, as required by international refugee law. In too many other recent repatriation operations, those conditions have not been respected.