Table of Contents

The Carnegie Middle East Center launched its project, Triggers for the Return of Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, in October 2016. It included both qualitative and quantitative analysis using primary and secondary material. Central to the methodology was a series of field-based focus group discussions (FGDs) that solicited the perspectives of Syrian refugees. These discussions were supplemented by desk research, a literature review, roundtable discussions, workshops, meetings, and interviews.

The desk research focused on compiling and analyzing existing information and data about the geographic composition of the refugee populations in Lebanon and Jordan. It was instrumental in determining the refugees’ areas of origin, their demographic characteristics, and the challenges they face. It also helped to shape the profiles of the focus group participants and the question guide used in the discussions.

This research was accompanied by a literature review, roundtable discussions, workshops, and one-on-one meetings. The literature review included studies on the conditions Syrian refugees face in host countries, as well as comparable case studies from other countries and regions. In one roundtable, the project team brought together individuals working with Syrian and international nongovernmental organizations, activists, journalists, and researchers to consider the key challenges and lessons learned from historical cases of displacement and repatriation. The participants also explored the relative importance of “push factors” in the host country versus “pull factors” in the country of origin and how they may lead to different forms of repatriation, whether mass, staggered, cyclical, or other. In two other roundtables, the team brought together practitioners and academics to discuss the dynamics of postconflict reconstruction following the April 2017 Brussels conference on Syria and analyze the principal findings of Carnegie’s project and key policy recommendations.

The project also organized two workshops. One focused on the challenges of return from a comparative perspective, looking at the experiences of refugees and internally displaced populations from Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq, as well as the lessons learned. The other workshop explored the prospects for a sustainable political settlement and refugee repatriation in postconflict Syria. In particular, it examined key issues likely to influence refugee return, including housing, land and property rights, transitional justice, war economies, and the role of civil society organizations and tribal leaders in facilitating return.

Field-Based Research

The field-based research included two rounds of FGDs with refugees, as well as one-on-one interviews with select individuals. The focus group approach was chosen because it allowed for a nuanced discussion of politically and socially sensitive issues. The team also conducted a mini survey with the second round of focus group participants so as to allow for a finer understanding of individual responses during their discussions. The key findings were supplemented and validated through the one-on-one interviews, roundtable discussions, and workshops.  

Focus Group Methodology

Four main criteria were deemed central for defining the focus group profiles: area of origin of participating refugees, area of settlement, gender, and age, as well as other socioeconomic variables. The area of origin was important for determining the conditions at the time of departure and, in turn, the attitudes toward return. Area of settlement allowed the project team to better understand the varying conditions in the host countries. The refugees’ ages, gender, and socioeconomic and legal status were useful to better assess the impact of demography on political attitudes toward return. While some statistics were readily available, such as age and gender, other data, including the governorates and towns of origin of the refugees, were more scattered across a significant number of UNHCR reports.

To construct an approximate picture of the refugees’ demographic characteristics and areas of origin—up until April 2015 for Lebanon and September 2016 for Jordan—the project team consolidated the widespread UNHCR information into one coherent dataset. The information for Jordan was dated close enough to the project’s launch date to be used as is. However, for Lebanon, the project team assumed that the 10 percent decline in aggregate registered refugee figures recorded during the April 2015–September 2016 period was proportionally distributed across governorates and towns. In other words, the composition of the registered refugee population was more or less the same in April 2015 and November 2016. (See figure 4 below and figure 1 earlier in the report.)

The team also used data published in various UNHCR reports to identify refugee settlement locations within host countries and, in turn, the areas where focus groups would take place. Even though refugees tended to move around, the impact of these movements was not deemed significant enough to affect the focus group profiles. In addition, the demographic profiles of the FGDs were made to resemble as closely as possible the demographic profiles of refugees identified in both countries by the UNHCR, as well as their areas of settlement.

Focus Group Profiles

The project team carried out the field work in two phases: between January and March 2017 and between May and August 2017. Phase I included nine FGDs in Lebanon and eight in Jordan. Phase II included another nine FGDs in Lebanon and thirteen in Jordan. In between the phases, the team assessed the findings from the first round, adjusted the question guide as needed, and prepared a mini survey for Phase II participants to fill out before every discussion. In total, twenty-one focus group discussions were carried out in Jordan and eighteen in Lebanon (see tables 1 and 2). Fifty-one percent of participants were male and 49 percent were female, ranging in age from twenty-five years old and younger (youth) to fifty years old and older (middle-aged).

Due to the sensitive nature of the discussion topics, the focus group coordinators and recruiters made a conscious effort to ensure group homogeneity. The topic of return and political settlements is complex, and, in heterogeneous settings, participants might have been compelled to respond differently, given the potential risks of being viewed as dissenters within the community. Essentially, the project team sought to avoid situations where participants might speak untruthfully so as to protect themselves or their families. Of course, political inclinations were very difficult to assess and only became apparent through successive, probing questions. In Lebanon, the majority of refugees presented as anti-regime, with a minority presenting as pro-regime; whereas, in Jordan, most refugees presented as anti-regime.

The coordinators and recruiters also tried to avoid including individuals who knew each other, but this was equally difficult to ascertain at times. In a few discussions, the recruiters inevitably included family members or neighbors in the same group. This issue was addressed by discounting any responses that indicated that family influence was playing a role.

Focus Group Discussions

The questions used for the focus groups were phrased to minimize the risk of influencing the respondents’ answers. The discussions lasted, on average, one hour and a half, excluding subsequent probes. The moderators asked about, among other topics, their reasons for leaving Syria, their living conditions in Lebanon and Jordan, their perspectives on their futures and the prospects of returning to Syria, and the Syria they would like to see. Ample room was left for their own interpretation of the topics being presented. In addition, a mini survey was shared with Phase II participants to garner some additional information about them and allow the team to better triangulate responses and provide a more nuanced reading of individual positions on key issues.

Data Limitations

The limited availability of certain data impacted the analysis of project findings. For example, there was insufficient information about the sizable, unregistered refugee populations in both Lebanon and Jordan. Jordan’s last national census in 2015 estimated the number of Syrian refugees to be 1.27 million, and still only around 659,000 are registered as of March 2018.1 In Lebanon, the size difference is less dramatic; of the total 1.5 million refugees estimated to be living in the country in 2016, around 1 million are currently registered.2 Consequently, while the project team was able to conduct FGDs with unregistered refugees, the macro picture related to their broader demographic characteristics and areas of origin could not be factored into the analysis.

The absence of publicly available information also meant that the project team was unable to combine the datasets detailing the geographic origins of refugees and their settlement locations in Lebanon and Jordan. Therefore, the team was unable to identify how many refugees from specific areas in Syria ended up settling in the various geographic regions in Lebanon and Jordan. To mitigate the problem, the team solicited the input of local partners, key informants, and consultants to help identify and recruit participants based on predetermined focus group profiles. Such input also included the employment and legal status of focus group participants.

Because of data limitations, other metrics that might have affected the participants’ attitudes toward return were also not usable. Foremost among these was the phase of displacement. Assuming that the conditions under which an individual left Syria would impact his or her attitude toward return, it would have been possible to differentiate between the groups that left during earlier periods of the war and those who left as military operations began to escalate. While figures for registered populations are readily available, the data are not correlated with on-the-ground developments. This is partly because refugees were often displaced multiple times within Syria before making their way over the border. This time lag was further extended by the delayed registration of refugees with the UNHCR, as a result either of backlogs or sometimes the reluctance of individuals to immediately register. Discussions with key informants indicated that the time between crossing a border and registration often ranged from six months to a year. Furthermore, in May 2015, the Lebanese government requested that the UNHCR end the registration process. This particular shortcoming was partially addressed through the mini survey for Phase II participants. The survey revealed that most of them had left Syria in 2013 as a direct result of insecurity and military operations that targeted them or their families.

Terms and Definitions

The project team defined youth as all those refugees below age twenty-five years old. The areas of origins referenced in the report correspond to governorates and not cities, unless stated otherwise. The categories “pro-regime” and “anti-regime” were favored over “pro-regime” and “pro-opposition,” as a significant number of anti-regime participants did not identify as pro-opposition per se and were critical of both the armed and political oppositions. However, they did define themselves as anti-regime. Finally, all the participants’ names have been changed for security reasons and to maintain their privacy.


The authors thank the Human Security Division of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office for their generous support of this important year-long project; as well as Carnegie’s local partner organizations, Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development in Jordan and Lamset Ward in Lebanon, for their indispensable assistance with the field research.

Thanks also go to the following individuals for their valuable contributions: Bassem Nemeh for his meticulous analysis of refugee demographics in Lebanon and Jordan and his contributions to the discussion guide and Jordan field work; Samar Muhareb and Ashraf al-Hafny for their technical input and wholehearted support throughout the project; Nicolas Masson for his expert and unwavering support for this project; and Georges Achi, Ali Amirghassemi, Joelle Hajj Boutros, Joy Ghosn, Isadora Gotts, Yasmine Bou Hamze, Youmna Hourani, Georgia Littlechild, Ayla Ojjeh, Rayan Sabbah, Sulafah al Shami, Yasmine Zarhloule, Nour Zargouni, and Nayla-Joy Zein for their crucial research assistance.

Gratitude also goes to the focus group coordinators Diana al-Baba and Ashraf al-Hafny in Lebanon and Jalal Husseini, Lina al-Darras, Reem Othman, and Zain Jbeili in Jordan for their work; the experts and scholars who participated in various brainstorming sessions and meetings to discuss the project’s findings and report; and Carnegie colleagues who provided critical support throughout the project’s duration.

Most of all, the authors thank all the refugees who took the time to share their stories, dreams, and insights during focus group discussions and interviews.


1 Distribution of Non-Jordanian Population Living in Jordan by Sex, Nationality, Urban/ Rural and Governorate, Population and Housing Census 2015, Department of Statistics,; and UNHCR, “Syrian Regional Refugee Response—Jordan,” UNHCR, March 9, 2018,

2 International Labor Organization, “ILO Response to Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon,” International Labor Organization, no date,; and UNHCR, “Syria Regional Refugee Response—Lebanon,” UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response, January 31, 2018,