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Syria’s 18 million people make up less than one percent of the world’s population, but a whopping one-third of all refugees are Syrian. Since 2011, more than 5.5 million people have fled the country and 6.1 million have been internally displaced. Syria’s neighbors have borne the brunt of the crisis: there are 3.3 million registered refugees in Turkey, one million in Lebanon, and 650,000 in Jordan. Another half million Syrian refugees now reside in Europe. (Canada and the United States have taken in approximately 50,000 and 18,000, respectively.)
These refugee flows have destabilized other countries in the region, reshaped global asylum and migration policies, and fueled a populist backlash in the West that has undermined liberal democracy. And so it may be no surprise that most international discussions about the future of Syrian refugee populations settle on a simple solution: sending them back to Syria once the conflict is over. The various peace negotiations under way—such as the Geneva process, sponsored by the UN, and the Astana talks, co-sponsored by Iran, Russia, and Turkey—take for granted that refugees will willingly return home once a political settlement is in place.
But these plans have ignored a crucial piece of the equation: what the refugees themselves want. My colleagues and I at the Carnegie Middle East Center sought to fill this gap by interviewing refugees in Jordan and Lebanon about what it would take for them to go home. These conversations made clear just how difficult mass voluntary return would be.
Although experiences of discrimination in their current countries of residence have led many refugees to romanticize pre-conflict Syria, those whom we interviewed overwhelmingly cited safety and security as a chief condition for return. But most do not believe that these security conditions will be met any time soon without some form of political change. The majority of refugees oppose the regime, and for them, safety and security can only be guaranteed if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad goes. This is especially true for women, who fear for the safety of their children and families if they return. But the departure of Assad is not all that refugees want; many believe that safety and security also means demilitarization, which would involve the disbanding of all militias and armed factions and putting an end to arbitrary arrests and checkpoints. For most refugees, local actors bring only chaos and instability. Their hopes for ending the conflict lie mainly with external actors. Even pro-regime refugees (who qualified for refugee status because they were fleeing conflict-heavy areas) have doubts about whether their homeland will be safe enough to return. Although some believe that there is hope for political stability if the Syrian army regains control over enough territory, most feel that no solution in sight.
Another key obstacle to refugee return is Syria’s mandatory military conscription for men between the ages of 18 and 42, a policy that also spurred the departure of many of our young focus group participants. Sectarian grievances compound this fear. Given that the Alawites dominate Syria’s ruling political class, some Sunni youth believe that they will be sent to the frontlines to die, while Alawite conscripts will receive safer deployments. Recent laws have further complicated this issue. In 2017, the government imposed an $8,000 fine on men who fail to register for military service within three months of turning 18. Because this law also applies to those who fled before it was ratified, male refugees of conscription age who want to come back to Syria must pay the fine. Those who subsequently fail to join the military will be imprisoned for a year and penalized $200 for every year after the starting date of conscription, and the government can seize the conscript’s assets until these payments are complete. Given the destitution of most refugees, such fines would cripple a family’s finances.
Justice also ranked high among the refugees’ condition for return. Many feared that without the proper legal framework to hold individuals responsible for crimes committed during the conflict, lawlessness and vigilante style justice will prevail. But our focus group disagreed over how this should be accomplished. Pro-regime refugees rejected the notion of a presidential pardon for those who evaded conscription or participated in anti-regime activities because they believe that individuals who opposed the regime are traitors and should not be forgiven. Most anti-regime refugees, on the other hand, opposed the idea of a blanket impunity for all crimes committed during the conflict because they are adamant that those who committed grave crimes should be held accountable.
Surprisingly, economic opportunity was less of a concern for most refugees than political stability. When asked if they would return to Syria under favorable political conditions, even if they lacked economic opportunities or housing, most refugees stated that they would. But they also specified that they wanted to return to their cities of origin. Only a minority of the focus group suggested that they would be willing to settle in any region of Syria if that were the only option.
In practice, however, going back home will be challenging for even the most committed refugees. Fragmentation of territories, widespread destruction, and new legislation governing property rights will all complicate refugees’ ability to reclaim the lives they left behind. Mass displacement has produced large-scale secondhand occupation of housing, and many poorly equipped camps have been erected on land still legally owned by civilians. These settlements will generate property rights issues for refugees seeking to recover their assets.
In practice, going back home will be challenging for even the most committed refugees.
The Assad regime has only made matters worse. A number of studies indicate that the regime has used land registries to identify areas allied with the opposition and target them with military campaigns in the hope that this would turn civilian populations against the opposition. Credible reports in 2016 also claimed that the regime deliberately destroyed land registries in order to dispossess those who fled and forge new ownership records for pro-regime citizens. In Homs, a recent urban renewal law (no. 10), took this approach to a new level by creating administrative units charged with reconstructing parts of the city and requiring all Syrians who own property in those areas to file a claim within one month. Those who fail to do so risk having their assets seized by the government, but for many refugees, returning to Syria could be a suicide mission. This legislation is designed to reward regime loyalists, who will be tasked with the redevelopment of Syria, and to dispossess opponents, including the millions of refugees who either cannot return or who fled without property deeds. In the long run, such policies could make exile permanent for many refugees.
Vetting procedures, such as those outlined by the governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, also ensure that going back to Syria will be difficult. To recover their homes, returning refugees must submit a legal document that certifies their place of origin and property ownership and they must undergo a security check by local police to ensure that they have no pending security or felony charges. New regulations also mandate that refugees must reclaim their property within a period of 30 days. This is an issue for men who avoided conscription and risk being arrested. Furthermore, in 2004, around 40 percent of property in Syria was informal, meaning that owners either did not have the right permits or built on publicly owned land. Half of our focus group participants fled Syria without proof of ownership. And because most refugees have limited access to information about new laws (especially those that relate to housing, land, and property rights), the process of reclaiming their assets would rely largely on informal networks and word of mouth.
For many refugees, the traumatic experiences of departure, compounded by the survival of the regime that forced them to flee, complicate the prospect of returning to Syria. Many remain wary about the unpredictable security situation. Although the intensity of the conflict may subside in the near future as the Assad regime consolidates more territory, the country will likely remain fragmented into different zones of influence for some time. Meanwhile, urban planning laws, reconstruction plans, forced conscription, and vetting procedures have become instruments in the hands of a regime bent on rewarding its loyalists and using the question of refugee return—a high priority for both its neighbors and Europe—as leverage to amplify its territorial gains and to initiate the process of reintegration into the international community.
No political settlement to the Syrian civil war will be sustainable unless it accounts for the needs and circumstances of refugees. The international community should insist on a refugee-centered negotiating framework that upholds the right to voluntary return. This means engaging with the key demands of refugees for political stability and justice, as well as pressuring the regime to roll back laws that dispossess refugees or hinder return. For example, international funding for stabilization and reconstruction at the local level could be directly linked to the maintenance of refugee rights. Addressing the Syrian refugee crisis requires acknowledging its political roots and including the voice of refugees in the peace process. If this does not occur, Syria will continue to be an epicenter of instability and human misery. And millions of Syrians around the world will remain refugees.