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.
WHAT REFUGEES WANT
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
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