Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan had a clear sense of the Syria they would like to see but recognized that it was almost impossible to achieve under the current circumstances. To guarantee a better future, all efforts to reach a sustainable political settlement must address the roots of the conflict and its repercussions on refugees in host countries. Most important, the efforts must enable a safe and secure return of refugees to their homes. As regime forces recapture parts of Syria, many people in host countries, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, are insisting that Syrian refugees be returned to “safe” areas in their country. These calls are essentially forcing refugees to choose between returning home and risking their lives or accepting an increasingly painful and humiliating exile due to the deteriorating situation in their host countries.
Current security conditions in Syria are highly unpredictable and therefore unsuitable for the return of most refugees. Intense military operations are ongoing in several regions, resulting in new waves of population displacements. Despite the regime’s military gains, Syria remains largely fragmented into multiple zones of influence, making the outbreak of future conflict very likely. Even deescalation zones have proven unstable, with numerous violations being recorded in recent months.1
Given this reality, refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are facing an increasingly difficult situation. Policymakers and populations in both countries do not want to see refugees settled permanently. So while they support providing refugees some access to employment, basic education, and health services, their policies have become gradually prohibitive, resulting in various legal and social forms of discrimination and limited access to justice. This has left refugees in a highly precarious socioeconomic situation and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Three interconnected factors place refugees at great risk should they be forced to return. First, with regime forces playing a role in population transfers, through sieges and local peace deals, refugees returning to their areas of origin could be turned away or persecuted. Second, the fragmentation of territories, the destruction of urban centers and rural areas, and the recent legislation governing property rights will make it extremely hard for refugees to recover their houses and rebuild their lives. And third, the proliferation of gangs and militias in regime- and opposition-held areas will likely make the journey back very unsafe.
In this context, the notion of a voluntary return, a bedrock of international conventions on refugees, has lost its meaning. Refugees are increasingly facing unsatisfactory choices, or even none at all, as some have already been forcibly returned to Syria through various means.2 They basically have three options: return to an unstable Syria, continue to live in uncertainty in host countries, or make the treacherous journey to Europe.
The international community’s response to the crisis has primarily focused on reaching a political agreement through the Geneva talks and preventing refugees from reaching Europe’s shores.3 This approach assumes, unrealistically, that refugees can reside indefinitely in host countries bordering Syria while the details of a political settlement are worked out. Even though the European Union and other donors have provided considerable humanitarian assistance to Lebanon and Jordan, it has fallen well short of what is needed, given the increasingly protracted nature of the conflict. The challenge is not simply to address the funding gaps, which are substantial, or to end the paralysis that afflicts political negotiations. Because bringing stability to Syria will take time, the international community must also work with host governments to revise existing policy frameworks regarding refugees and invest in their local economies.
Moreover, international actors need to listen to what the millions of refugees and internally displaced populations actually think. Although one-quarter of the Syrian population now lives in exile and almost one-third has been internally displaced, their specific concerns and priorities are not being represented in the negotiations over a postwar political settlement. In parallel to the Geneva process, ongoing talks in Astana have focused on stabilization and deescalation efforts, while also ignoring the plight of refugees and internally displaced populations. From the refugees’ perspective, and in view of the current conditions in Syria, the question of return is becoming increasingly more challenging and contingent on issues beyond their control.
It is in the long-term interest of the international community, including Lebanon and Jordan, to invest in a sustainable peace settlement in Syria. Any settlement that ignores the root causes of the war would simply generate fresh conflicts that further destabilize the region, trigger more population displacements, and create new waves of refugees. A sustainable settlement is viable only if questions surrounding a voluntary return, political representation, reintegration, and access to justice are addressed as part of an overall peace deal. Therefore, a vital part of this effort will be establishing a new framework for refugees and implementing conducive policy measures.
Any settlement that ignores the root causes of the war would simply generate fresh conflicts that further destabilize the region, trigger more population displacements, and create new waves of refugees.
Establish a Refugee-Centered Framework
A return of refugees is not just the physical movement of people across borders. Rather, first and foremost, it requires guarantees of safety and security, a favorable political infrastructure, and access to basic services and justice. Without these, a wholesale voluntary return of refugees to Syria may prove treacherous.
While listening to focus group participants, it became clear that a new refugee-centered framework is needed—one that would facilitate a sustainable return of refugees and enable them to make the choices best suited to their circumstances.4 The framework would have to be founded on three interconnected principles: recognition of the political roots of the refugee crisis; understanding of the role of justice in achieving a sustainable settlement; and acceptance of the need to uphold the refugees’ right of return to their areas of origin and homes.
Acknowledge the Political Roots of the Refugee Crisis
The international community’s efforts to address the refugee crisis are frequently depoliticized and approached from a strictly humanitarian mindset. This ignores the fact that millions of Syrians were forced to leave their country because of political and security reasons. Refugees in Lebanon and Jordan have escaped barrel bombs, sieges, mandatory conscription, forced evictions, arbitrary arrests, as well as political and sectarian killings. Moreover, most refugees in both countries are opposed to the Assad regime and believe they will not be safe in places that it controls. Many are also unable to return to their areas of origin because they were evicted from their towns and villages for political or sectarian reasons, without guarantees that they can go back.5
For refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, the question of return is directly linked to Syria’s future governance model and the nature of the postconflict political leadership. Refugees need to be assured that the dividends of peace, including basic infrastructure, will not be distributed according to political, ethnic, or sectarian considerations and will not become instruments for the regime to consolidate power.
Make Justice the Centerpiece of a Peace Settlement
The establishment of deescalation zones will not result in significant stability, nor will it lay the foundation for sustainable peace. Currently, Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey, and Jordan, and to a much lesser extent Egypt, all have spheres of interest in Syria—a reality partly facilitated by the Astana talks. Therefore, while the intensity of the conflict may subside in the near future, the situation on the ground will be far from stable for some time to come. The parties’ incompatible agendas have raised concerns that the return of refugees and internally displaced persons may be complicated by political, sectarian, and ethnic considerations.6
Further, a singular focus on bringing an end to military operations, without addressing the conflict’s root causes and the transformed power structures in Syria, makes future conflict almost inevitable. A political transition process that provides impunity to individuals accused of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity would not allow for fair political competition, nor would it safeguard individual liberties and human dignity. Critically, it would also undermine international norms of justice and accountability. The creation of new political, judicial, and security structures that respect human dignity will be necessary to avoid a resurgence of violence.
A political transition process that provides impunity to individuals accused of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity would not allow for fair political competition, nor would it safeguard individual liberties and human dignity.
Uphold the Right of Refugees to Return Home
The international community must seek to uphold the right of refugees and the internally displaced to return to their homes in Syria. A majority of Carnegie’s focus group participants were unwilling to compromise on this. Under the present circumstances, however, Syrian refugees are at risk of losing their right of return. The Syrian government is enacting a new legislative framework that will make it exceedingly difficult for refugees to go home. The measures introduced include vetting mechanisms, regulations on property rights, and revised laws regarding military conscription.
International actors must insist on the removal of political (and sometimes ethnic- or sectarian-driven) vetting procedures imposed by the regime and armed groups in recaptured areas. Essentially, they must target any measures that infringe upon Syrians’ right of return to their areas of origin and homes, especially those people displaced inside Syria or forced to seek refuge outside the country as a result of sieges, ethnic cleansing, or sectarian attacks. Security guarantees and confidence-building measures must be in place to enable the reintegration of returnees and prevent acts of revenge.
Implement Conducive Policy Measures
Adhering to the above principles means implementing key measures to guarantee the safety, security, protection, and reintegration of returning populations. Some of these measures will require long-term institutional efforts, but several immediate actions could be taken to address refugees’ conditions and concerns related to governance, reconstruction, and rights to protection and dignified lives.
Plan for a Political Transition
A majority of the project’s focus group participants emphasized that safety and security was their highest priority and that it can only be guaranteed through a different governance system and new political leadership. However, the prospect of this happening right now is low, given the continuing foreign interventions, the militarization of Syrian society, the multiplication of local armed groups, and the absence of accountability or access to justice. Also, governance reform can be a long and arduous process, particularly in conflict situations. This is especially the case in Syria, where the complex interplay of local and international politics presents a considerable challenge to achieving a sustainable political settlement and the return of stability.
Ensuring the safety and security of all Syrians, including refugees, will require systematic efforts to demilitarize Syrian society; address the proliferation of armed groups through disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs; and reform the national security institutions, including the army. These measures will take time. However, in the event of a political settlement, and as the process of demobilizing local militias begins, United Nations peacekeepers could be immediately deployed to help address the security concerns of refugees and boost their confidence should they choose to return. This is particularly true given refugees’ higher threshold for return compared to internally displaced persons and their distrust of both local and international parties to the conflict.
Further, for any political settlement to be sustainable, access to justice must be placed at the center of ongoing negotiations. The vetting mechanisms being implemented in different parts of Syria—especially former opposition strongholds in Aleppo, Homs, and Rural Damascus—have put many refugees who participated in peaceful protests or expressed hostile views of the regime at risk of being denied entry into their areas of origin. These vetting procedures must be removed and a mechanism for redress must be created. Also vital will be the establishment of mechanisms to dispel the notion of impunity, hold people accountable for major crimes perpetrated during Syria’s conflict, and discourage any further lawlessness. The role of international judicial institutions will likely be crucial, especially given the considerable influence of the government and security apparatus on Syria’s judiciary.
For refugees to return, they need assurances that they will have access to justice and that accountability measures will be in place to address their concerns. While fully meeting their needs may be too difficult right now, especially in regime-controlled areas, the international community can prepare them for eventual judicial processes.
Refugees could be advised on their legal rights under the Syrian system, particularly in light of the large number of legal disputes—including over housing, land, and property rights—that will likely accompany an end to the conflict. In fact, the creation of a cadre of Syrian lawyers or paralegals familiar with the country’s legal frameworks and the rights guaranteed through international conventions could go a long way in enabling Syrians to fend for themselves. They could inform refugees of their rights and responsibilities, educate them on the legislative changes regarding private property, and further raise their confidence. Such a cadre could also help address the likely shortage in lawyers and judges capable of dealing with the anticipated disputes.
The creation of a cadre of Syrian lawyers or paralegals familiar with the country’s legal frameworks and the rights guaranteed through international conventions could go a long way in enabling Syrians to fend for themselves.
Given the ethnic, sectarian, and political nature of the Syrians’ displacement, the development of trusted and skilled community-based mediators could also help returnees settle potential local disputes. In addition, they could help the international community vet potential partners in the reconstruction process and provide insights into local needs.
The international community must also adopt measures to ensure that the current Syrian laws addressing mandatory conscription, political detainees, and the disappeared become a central part of discussions in both Geneva and Astana. Ongoing political negotiations must include an examination of new laws pertaining to property rights and urban development and their implications for refugees, particularly regarding the seizure of assets. The property rights of women are chiefly important, as many more households are now headed by females. Traditionally, in Syria, most property is registered in the male’s name, and even when it is registered in the female’s name, she typically does not have access to the deed. This situation will make it much easier for local authorities to deny access to properties, especially in areas where the regime is tampering with refugees’ rights.
Ensure That Reconstruction Does Not Empower the Regime
From the international community’s perspective, reconstruction efforts would bolster stability and provide job opportunities that would, in turn, represent an incentive for refugees to return. However, while this may be the case for some refugees, most of the project’s focus group participants stated that they would not return if economic opportunities were not accompanied by security guarantees and political change.
Further, wide-scale funding provided through the central state would likely just empower the regime, even in instances where assistance is provided at the local level. This is partly because the regime has already exploited the conflict, and the ensuing humanitarian crisis, to create networks of local intermediaries run by individuals it trusts—many of whom have emerged as prominent warlords.7 Within the areas it controls, the regime would likely use any reconstruction funding to rebuild what it destroyed and portray itself as the indispensable interlocutor for reconstruction. This would bolster the regime’s legitimacy and sway over funding priorities, giving it a tremendous source of power. It would also further cement the regime’s political, economic, and social order that centers on warlords and population transfers.
However, despite these concerns and given that some states are still keen to start rebuilding, the international community could feasibly commence work in areas that have been devastated yet remain outside regime control. Notwithstanding the political tensions among international players in Syria, support for reconstruction in these areas would help encourage internally displaced populations to return to their homes. It would also help create a participatory model for reconstruction that includes locals in the planning, design, and implementation process—and takes into account postconflict social sensitivities.
Support for reconstruction in these areas not controlled by the regime would help create a participatory model for reconstruction that includes locals in the planning, design, and implementation process—and takes into account postconflict social sensitivities.
Should realpolitik prevail and reconstruction funding be made available in regime-held areas, several measures must be taken. These include establishing vetting mechanisms for local entities that will receive international funding and requiring that any money spent inside Syria be conditional on people being able to return to their areas of origin and recover their properties. The latter is critical given the regime’s considerable efforts at various times to re-engineer Syria’s political and demographic map through population transfers and new vetting mechanisms.8
In this context, any political settlement must also provide alternatives for refugees unable to return to their areas of origin, particularly those that witnessed ethnic and sectarian cleansing or where populations were subjected to sieges or other major crimes. The alternatives could include compensation for lost properties or the establishment of substitute locations for resettlement should refugees opt for this.
Respect the Right of Refugees to a Voluntary Return
Given the protracted nature of the Syrian conflict, the international community must reinvigorate its efforts to respect both the right of refugees to a voluntary return and the non-refoulement principle. This is critical in light of increasing demands in host countries for the forced repatriation of refugees. And it means not only defending the idea of non-refoulement but also reducing the factors in host countries that push refugees to return home prematurely, as well as addressing the factors in Syria preventing a return. In other words, it is about both limiting the debilitating conditions in host countries that deny refugees a dignified life and addressing legal and security measures in Syria that deny refugees the ability to return to their homes.
The factors in host countries that push refugees to return home prematurely, as well as addressing the factors in Syria preventing a return.
In addition to providing humanitarian assistance, the international community should support measures to boost the economies of host countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, and build their capacities to engage in service delivery. This would enhance the resilience of these countries and help safeguard the dignity and rights of both refugees and locals. In turn, Lebanon and Jordan should roll back their more restrictive residency and labor policies. It is in their long-term interests to do so, as the illegal status of refugees increases their vulnerability to exploitation and expands the informal economy. This, in turn, opens the door for considerable illegal activity and provides ample room for spoilers to capitalize on the dissatisfaction of refugees and locals alike.
More sustained dialogue between international actors and policymakers in Lebanon and Jordan is needed, and it must be focused on upholding the right of voluntary return. Together, they should outline the requirements of a dignified life for refugees and the policies needed to meet them. They should also consider the profound, often existential, identity-related concerns permeating the discussion on refugees in both Lebanon and Jordan. Otherwise, the principle of voluntary return loses its meaning and refugees may increasingly consider a return home under highly dangerous circumstances.
Support for host countries should also be expanded to include the financing of infrastructure projects. Such projects could enable better service provision and increase livelihood opportunities for both locals and refugees, especially in the poorest regions of Lebanon and Jordan where many refugees reside. They could also address some of the sources of tension between locals and refugees and bolster prospects for continued stability.
The return of refugees is a process laden with difficulty. In the case of Syrian refugees, the ordeal of their departure, combined with the survival of a regime accused of crimes against humanity, makes their return exceedingly challenging. No political settlement and no voluntary return will be sustainable unless it accounts for refugees’ needs and circumstances. Their voices must be heard. And it is the international community’s duty to ensure that they can live in dignity and that their basic conditions for a return to Syria are met. If not, the effects of Syria’s conflict may spread further into neighboring countries and beyond the Middle East.
1 Nada Homsi and Anne Barnard, “Marked for ‘De-Escalation,’ Syrian Towns Endure Surge of Attacks,” New York Times, November 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/18/world/middleeast/syria-de-escalation-zones-atarib.html.
2 Maha Yahya, “Blaming the Victims,” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 31, 2017, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/72680; and Human Rights Watch, “‘I Have No Idea Why They Sent Us Back. ’”
3 Human Rights Watch, “EU Policies Put Refugees at Risk: An Agenda to Restore Protection,” Human Rights Watch, November 23, 2016, www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/23/eu-policies-put-refugees-risk.
4 Maha Yahya and Jean Kassir, “Coming Home? A Political Settlement in Syria Must Focus on Refugees,” Carnegie Middle East Center, March 30, 2017, http://carnegie-mec.org/2017/03/30/coming-home-political-settlement-in-syria-must-focus-on-refugees-pub-68453.
5 “35 milliar lira lita’hil Darayya al-shmaliyya . . . al-‘awda tahkoumouha i‘tibarat amniyya” [35 billion Pounds for the Rehabilitation of Northern Darayya . . . A Return Is Governed by Security Considerations], Enab Baladi, January 1, 2018,https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/196338#ixzz57Fx0sDFy.
6 Maha Yahya and Jean Kassir, “Coming Home?”
7 Kheder Khaddour, “I, the Supreme,” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 22, 2017, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/68348.
8 Fabrice Balanche, “Ethnic Cleansing Threatens Syria’s Unity.”