The conflict in Syria has generated the largest refugee crisis in recent history.1 More than 5.5 million Syrians have fled the country, while another 6.1 million are internally displaced.2 However, efforts to end the conflict—whether through the United Nations (UN)–sponsored Geneva process or through the Astana talks cosponsored by Russia, Iran, and Turkey—are failing to account for refugees’ attitudes, concerns, and basic conditions for returning home. Both negotiating frameworks implicitly assume that refugees will return the moment a peace deal is signed. That is highly unlikely. Refugees contemplating a return seek assurances about their physical safety, access to basic services, employment opportunities, and right of return to their areas of origin. They are also concerned about the provisions of any political settlement, how governance will devolve, and whether justice will be served. Moreover, they want assurances that they indeed will be welcomed back.
Both negotiating peace frameworks implicitly assume that refugees will return the moment a peace deal is signed. That is highly unlikely.
In responding to the crisis, the international community’s primary focus has been on humanitarian aid and, increasingly, containment. Consequently, stemming the flow of refugees toward Europe has generally taken priority over addressing the conflict’s root causes and refugees’ living conditions.3 It is assumed that refugees can remain indefinitely in host countries while the contours of a political settlement in Syria are worked out. Yet the substantial humanitarian assistance the European Union and other donors are providing to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey is not nearly enough to address the needs of refugees and host country nationals, especially given the increasingly protracted nature of the Syrian conflict.
For Lebanon and Jordan in particular, the sudden, large-scale influx of refugees has placed tremendous strain on state institutional capacities; social relations; and already existing economic, financial, and infrastructural problems. Limited economic opportunity has created intense competition within both refugee and host communities for low-skilled jobs and access to services.
Sectarian, demographic, or security fears have further exacerbated these tensions.4 In Lebanon, many citizens are concerned that the large population of predominantly Sunni Muslim refugees could disrupt the country’s delicate sectarian balance and replicate Lebanon’s experience with the 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugee crises and their fallout. Lebanese policymakers have been increasingly calling for the return of refugees to Syria, claiming that the establishment of deescalation zones will make such a return possible.5 Some politicians have responded to growing public discontent by resorting to vile, xenophobic rhetoric and using refugees as scapegoats.6
In Jordan, a country that also hosts Palestinian, Iraqi, and Yemeni refugees, demographic concerns prevail. Many East Bank Jordanians are worried about becoming a minority. Following a series of armed attacks in 2016, the government began deporting refugees back to Syria, despite its official stance discouraging such behavior.7 The deported refugees are often accused of being in contact with individuals or armed groups in Syria or of being employed illegally in Jordan.
Although Lebanon and Jordan are facing immense challenges, the situation in Syria is far from being conducive to the return of refugees. Security conditions in the refugees’ areas of origin remain volatile because of either ongoing armed conflict or the potential for persecution in regime-controlled locations. And a mass return of refugees now will likely lead to further insecurity due to intense competition for limited resources and infrastructure. The World Bank has estimated that from 2011 to 2016, Syria’s cumulative losses in gross domestic product (GDP) were $226 billion—about four times its GDP in 2010,8 and the International Monetary Fund has estimated the cost of reconstruction in Syria to be $100–$200 billion.9 In ten of Syria’s largest cities, over one-fourth of the housing stock in 2010 was either partially or completely destroyed by 2017, especially in cities that had fallen out of regime control for a time. Damage levels were significantly high in Deir Ezzor and Palmyra (41 percent each), Aleppo (31 percent), Homs (23 percent), and Daraa (15 percent).10 Meanwhile, the mass displacement of civilians has produced both a large-scale, second-hand occupation of housing by internally displaced populations and the creation of makeshift, ill-equipped camps on land owned by civilians who fled the conflict.11 These issues are likely to generate legal disputes for returning refugees seeking to reclaim their assets.
The mass displacement of civilians has produced both a large-scale, second-hand occupation of housing by internally displaced populations and the creation of makeshift, ill-equipped camps on land owned by civilians who fled the conflict.
Access to education and basic services has also been severely affected, contributing to further displacement. Syria’s education infrastructure has been heavily impacted by the conflict, with 53 percent of all educational facilities partially damaged and 10 percent completely destroyed. Schools in the governorates of Aleppo have been the hardest hit, with about 68 percent of primary schools partially damaged or destroyed.12 Regarding services, power generation dropped by over 62 percent between 2010 and 2015, causing long daily electricity outages. At the same time, nearly half of Syria’s water pumping stations, one-third of its water towers, one-quarter of its sewage treatment plants, and one-sixth of its water wells have been partially damaged or destroyed. Finally, over half of all health facilities have been partially or completely destroyed, and at least 15,000 of Syria’s 30,000 physicians have left the country.13
Given the multitude of difficulties refugees would face upon return, it seems imperative to gauge their minimum requirements for returning to Syria. Ultimately, no political settlement will be sustainable unless the primary needs and concerns of Syrians are accounted for. In recognition of this, scholars of the Carnegie Middle East Center undertook a field-based research project to examine refugee conditions and attitudes in Lebanon and Jordan. Between January and December 2017, the project team assessed the demographics of the refugee population, convened focus group discussions with a broad range of refugees, organized closed workshops and roundtable discussions, and held informal discussions with key informants and national and international stakeholders. In total, the team organized thirty-nine focus group discussions, comprising females (49 percent) and males (51 percent) of various ages. In Lebanon, a majority of the refugees presented as anti-regime and a minority as pro-regime; while, in Jordan, most presented as anti-regime. The names of the refugees quoted in this report have been changed to protect their privacy. Annex I details the methodology, including the criteria for selection and sampling.
The demographic assessment shed light on the composition of Syrian refugees and their areas of origin, while the discussions and interviews helped elucidate the conflict’s devastating impact on both individuals and communities in Lebanon and Jordan and the complexity of their situation. Beyond the loss of friends, relatives, and homes, the scale of displacement and devastation has left in its wake a traumatized and significantly impoverished society—with consequences that will last for generations. Most Syrian refugees expressed a sense of entrapment. They have an overwhelming desire to return to their homes in Syria but believe that it is virtually impossible without a stable political transition. At the same time, they believe that constructing meaningful lives in host countries remains equally impossible. Three dominant narratives came out of the focus group discussions and are best characterized by an acute sense of discrimination; a tension between nostalgia for their lives in pre-war Syria and the reality of their current living conditions and what they would return to; and a profound feeling of abandonment by the international community.
An acute sense of discrimination. Syrian refugees in both Lebanon and Jordan reported experiencing an increasing level of discrimination. Various restrictions on residency, employment, and freedom of movement have left them vulnerable to exploitation.
In Lebanon in particular, widespread xenophobia has accentuated the refugees’ sense of isolation and marginalization. They are bewildered by the evening curfews some municipalities have imposed on them, the security personnel’s sometimes harsh treatment of them, and the collective eviction of entire refugee communities in response to crimes committed by a single individual. Even though most Syrian refugees recognize that the decades of Syrian political and military domination over Lebanon resulted in a turbulent relationship, they emphasize that this history pre-dates them and that they welcomed and supported Lebanese citizens during the 2006 Lebanon War. In Jordan, refugees also spoke of a general atmosphere of hostility that is further inhibiting their freedom of movement and increasing their feeling of alienation. And it appears that Syrian children are bearing the brunt of such belligerence.
Unregistered refugees are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation, arbitrary arrests, and forced evictions from villages. Between one-quarter and one-third of refugees in Lebanon, and almost half of those in Jordan, are not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and thus reside in the countries illegally.14 Difficulty obtaining work permits forces these refugees to also work illegally, further exposing them to abuse by criminals and prosecution by state authorities. Given refugees’ limited access to judicial redress, these situations sometimes lead to their expulsion from host countries.
Refugees also feel a sense of discrimination in relation to Syrian attitudes at home. They fear being labeled as traitors for leaving their country in its hour of need—no matter their reasons for departure. This is generating further fissures within Syrian society, posing significant challenges for postconflict reconciliation. Hassan, an unregistered young refugee living in Beirut said, “Today, everyone who leaves Syria is considered a traitor.”15
Hassan, an unregistered young refugee living in Beirut said, “Today, everyone who leaves Syria is considered a traitor.”
The fear of going home. This sense of discrimination is further accentuated by refugees’ complex feelings about going home. Many evoke an idealistic view of Syria before 2011, when daily life was depoliticized, sectarianism did not exist, and communities coexisted peacefully. The view seems disconnected from the larger questions of politics and governance in the country during the pre-conflict period. It also reflects their longing for a sense of community that shares cultures and traditions. Most refugees simply want Syria to return to what it was before the war.
Yet the refugees made one thing clear: the longing for a pre-conflict Syria is not the same as nostalgia for the regime. Many are aware of the political realities, are averse to living life under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, and understand that the Syria they once knew is gone. Their longing is also tempered by fears for their safety and the knowledge that legal obstacles could make it nearly impossible for them to resume their lives. Through social networks, some refugees have learned about the local vetting procedures for returnees and the Assad regime’s legislative frameworks for the recovery of private property or the development of neighborhoods. The majority of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan believe they cannot go home unless the conflict’s root causes are addressed in a political transition. The Syrian regime’s survival continues to represent a principal obstacle to return, putting the refugees’ future on hold.
Abandonment by the international community. An overriding sense of abandonment by the international community is enhancing refugees’ feeling of desolation. Most believe that the Syrian conflict is now a proxy war between outside powers, that Syrians overall have been stripped of agency and the ability to influence their future course, and that a resolution lies mainly in the hands of international actors, namely Russia and the United States. Anti-regime refugees fear being left at the mercy of a regime that has committed mass murder and crimes against humanity. Pro-regime refugees describe the conflict as an international conspiracy against Syria—for which Syrians have paid with their lives.
These narratives and the feelings of injustice and humiliation may impact future relations between Syrians and Lebanese and Jordanians, as well as further dissociate Syrians from an international community they no longer believe in. This is especially true in Lebanon, where the legacy of Syria’s damaging role in the country’s civil war and its subsequent decades-long political and military hegemony continue to resonate with many Lebanese today.
Because a better future in Syria or in exile seems increasingly out of reach, refugees are worried about what lies ahead. They are unable to build dignified lives in host countries that are experiencing their own challenges and that view them as a burden. Yet they cannot go home to an ongoing conflict. The international community’s focus on stabilizing the situation in Syria while containing the migration flux to Europe—rather than addressing the root causes of the Syrian conflict or the principal reasons for the refugees’ exile—has exacerbated their sense of desperation. As they face a lose-lose situation, the notion of a voluntary return is slowly losing meaning; refugees are being forced to choose between extreme poverty and exploitation in host countries and insecurity and possible persecution in Syria.
Refugees are being forced to choose between extreme poverty and exploitation in host countries and insecurity and possible persecution in Syria.
1 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Syria Conflict at 5 Years: The Biggest Refugee and Displacement Crisis of Our Time Demands a Huge Surge in Solidarity,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, March 15, 2016, http://www.unhcr.org/afr/news/press/2016/3/56e6e3249/syria-conflict-5-years-biggest-refugee-displacement-crisis-time-demands.html.
2 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview: Syrian Arab Republic,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, November 2017, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2018_syr_hno_english.pdf.
3 Human Rights Watch, “EU Policies Put Refugees at Risk,” Human Rights Watch, November 23, 2016, www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/23/eu-policies-put-refugees-risk.
4 Maha Yahya, “Refugees and the Making of an Arab Regional Disorder,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 9, 2015, http://carnegie-mec.org/2015/11/09/refugees-and-making-of-arab-regional-disorder-pub-61901.
5 “Lebanese President Calls for Safe Zones in Syria for Refugees,” Reuters, February 3, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-aoun/lebanese-president-calls-for-safe-zones-in-syria-for-refugees-idUSKBN15I1WQ.
6 Joey Ayoub, “Lebanese Politicians Are Scapegoating Syrian Refugees,” New Arab, April 13, 2017, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2017/4/13/lebanese-politicians-are-scapegoating-syrian-refugees.
7 Human Rights Watch, “‘I Have No Idea Why They Sent Us Back’: Jordanian Deportations and Expulsions of Syrian Refugees,” Human Rights Watch, October 2, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/10/02/i-have-no-idea-why-they-sent-us-back/jordanian-deportations-and-expulsions-syrian.
8 World Bank, The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2017).
9 Jeanne Gobat and Kristina Kostial, “Syria’s Conflict Economy,” International Monetary Fund, Working Paper WP/16/123, June 2016, https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2016/wp16123.pdf.
10 World Bank, The Toll of War.
11 Norwegian Refugee Council, “Housing Land and Property (HLP) in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Norwegian Refugee Council, Briefing Note, June 7, 2016, https://www.nrc.no/resources/reports/syrian/.
12 World Bank, The Toll of War.
13 Physicians for Human Rights, “Doctors in the Crosshairs: Four Years of Attacks on Health Care in Syria,” Physicians for Human Rights, March 2015, https://www.scribd.com/document/258471592/Doctors-in-the-Crosshairs.
14 For the number of unregistered refugees in Lebanon, see Maja Janmyr, “Precarity in Exile: The Legal Status of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,”Refugee Survey Quarterly 35, no. 4 (2016): 58–78. For the number of unregistered refugees in Jordan, see Sally Hayden, “Forced Back to Syria? Jordan’s Unregistered Refugees Fear Deportation,” Reuters, February 21, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-jordan-refugees/forced-back-to-syria-jordans-unregistered-refugees-fear-deportation-idUSKBN16100I. Also see Wesley Dockery, “What’s Jordan’s Policy Towards Syrian and Iraqi Refugees?” InfoMigrants, October 5, 2017, http://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/5470/what-s-jordan-s-policy-towards-syrian-and-iraqi-refugees; and International Refugee Trust, “Jordan and the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” International Refugee Trust Jordan Archives, March 15, 2017, https://www.irt.org.uk/2017/03/15/jordan-syrian-refugee-crisis/.
15 Focus group discussion no. 2 in Beirut, Lebanon, February 1, 2017.