While the challenges refugees face in Lebanon and Jordan are significant and worsening, the cessation of hostilities in Syria will not necessarily mean an automatic return to their homes. In many cases, they have no homes to return to. This is why listening to refugees is essential to gauge their attitudes and understand what it will take for them to go back—that is, if they even want to return.
Carnegie’s focus group participants clearly indicated that their situation is complex, with myriad concerns that have changed considerably since 2011. Among those concerns were their personal safety and that of their families, the long-term prospects for stability in Syria, their economic well-being, and the pursuit of justice for wartime crimes. Refugees highlighted common priorities and shared requirements for a return to Syria. Their attitudes were defined, more generally, by the circumstances of their departure from the country, their conditions for return, and a sense of the future Syria they desire.
Why They Left
The decision of Syrians to leave their country was not an easy one. In most cases, it was taken after multiple displacements inside Syria. Many refugees were subjected personally to incidents that threatened their lives or those of family members. During Carnegie’s focus groups discussions, refugees spoke about why they left Syria, how they chose their country of refuge, and what they felt were the prospects for a return to Syria. While many in Europe view Syrian refugees as economic migrants seeking a more prosperous life in the West, the reality is different. Even if Syrian refugees’ attitudes toward resettlement outside the Middle East have changed over time, the initial motivation for leaving Syria was, quite simply, to find a safe haven nearby. The focus group participants made this point time and again. Omar, from Daraa, explained: “My children and I were injured in the conflict. We wanted to leave the country, and they stopped us at the Moadamiyeh checkpoint near Daraa, even though we were visibly injured and bloodied. They asked where we were going, and we told them we were leaving. . . . They [the Syrian Army] searched us and then took us to a security unit. They let the women and children go and detained me and my injured son.”1
The extent to which Syrian refugees’ motivations and decisions were shaped by complex processes and considerable uncertainty is striking. In many cases, refugees had to make difficult choices while living in confusing and rapidly changing environments—a context that now also applies in their host countries. To fully understand the mindset of refugees, it is necessary to recognize that the considerable trauma they suffered took place within a dynamic framework—one that belies the static reading of their conditions.
Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are not economic migrants. A tiny minority were already living and working in both countries (though much less so in Jordan) prior to the 2011 uprising. Of the refugees Carnegie surveyed during focus group discussions, around 82 percent fled Syria because of deteriorating security conditions or a specific security incident targeting them or their family. These incidents included arbitrary arrests, random stops at checkpoints, or the death of a family member or friend. Many young men left to avoid military conscription, mandatory for males age eighteen to forty-two. These findings are in line with reports by international organizations, including an August 2012 Médecins Sans Frontières report affirming that 75 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon left home for security reasons.2 Oussama, a young refugee from Daraa, spoke for many when he said, “We left the country so that we wouldn’t kill or get killed. We wanted to live like everyone else . . . we did not leave to fight. If we wanted to fight we would have stayed and taken on the world. But we have women and children. We do not want someone to come and rape them. We do not want to be insulted or humiliated. Syrians are the most humiliated nation in the world.”3
Oussama, a young refugee from Daraa, spoke for many when he said, “We left the country so that we wouldn’t kill or get killed. We wanted to live like everyone else . . . we did not leave to fight. If we wanted to fight we would have stayed and taken on the world. But we have women and children. We do not want someone to come and rape them. We do not want to be insulted or humiliated. Syrians are the most humiliated nation in the world.
Among the minority who did not leave for security reasons were pro-regime refugees—some of whom moved to Lebanon, mainly from Damascus and Latakia, for economic purposes. Fadi, a pro-regime refugee, pointed out, “We were all drafted for conscription into the army. While everyone would like to serve the regime and one’s country, economic conditions [prevented us from doing so] . . . and [we do need to] help our families.”4
Because the economic opportunities in Lebanon and Jordan were already limited, most anti-regime refugees noted that leaving Syria for economic reasons would not have made sense. While many refugees had lost everything at home, others were forced, over time, to spend all the assets or savings they arrived with. They essentially had to restart their lives in countries offering limited employment opportunities, if any.
Most refugees expressed frustration with the aid network in both countries. And the minority of refugees who reported receiving aid asserted that it was insufficient to satisfy their needs. Many refugees were also unclear about the UN’s criteria for distributing aid; several relayed anecdotes of aid bypassing them and going to neighbors or acquaintances who were better off economically.
Choosing a Host Country
For Syrian refugees, multiple factors determined their choice of host country: primarily geographical proximity; preexisting familiarity with the country; family, tribal, or social ties; cultural or political affinity; and prior or current employment in the country.
Some refugees, particularly those supportive of the Assad regime, chose Lebanon because of its political leanings. They perceived the political outlooks of Turkey and Jordan to be hostile, while Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon and the country’s geographical proximity to regime-held areas made for a safer choice. Anti-regime refugees saw Hezbollah’s presence as a key concern and instead opted to flee to Jordan. Most refugees admitted to regretting their choice, especially those in Lebanon, because of their families’ exacting living conditions and lack of future prospects.
Many refugees initially did not want to leave Syria. Around half of the focus group participants had been displaced numerous times within Syria before crossing the border. Many first fled to safer localities nearby to escape fighting. But as insecurity became more widespread, and the safety of their families became more precarious, many made the difficult decision to move on to Lebanon or Jordan. Note, however, that the challenges in tracking the movements of individuals and families have made it impossible to identify the exact number of internally displaced Syrians who later became refugees.5 What is clear is that most refugees left believing that their stay in the host country would only last a few months. Malek, from Idlib, observed, “When I first came [to Lebanon], I believed it would be a matter of four to five months and then the situation would get better. I would complete my education. But it did not work out and I stayed here.”6
Malek, from Idlib, observed, “When I first came [to Lebanon], I believed it would be a matter of four to five months and then the situation would get better. I would complete my education. But it did not work out and I stayed here.”
As of 2015, most Syrian refugees in Lebanon originated from the governorates of Aleppo (21 percent), Homs (21 percent), Rural Damascus (14 percent), and Idlib (13 percent) (see figure 1). And as of 2016, most refugees in Jordan originated from the governorates of Daraa (43 percent), Homs (16 percent), Rural Damascus (12 percent), and Aleppo (10 percent). This is mainly because Aleppo, Homs, Idlib, and Rural Damascus were among the regions most heavily impacted by the war. The mass departures took place under considerable duress, as individuals and families sought to escape aerial bombings, arbitrary arrests, or sectarian killings.
Attitudes Toward Resettlement
Refugees’ attitudes toward resettlement outside the region varied and are potentially changing. A majority of focus group participants in Lebanon and Jordan expressed a strong desire to return to Syria, voicing numerous concerns about resettlement in Europe. However, many of them, especially women and older people, were understandably worried about the situation in Syria. Roughly one in eight participants said they never want to return; these refugees are mostly youths who suffered serious trauma and say they have little left to return to—and therefore, for them, resettling in Europe is simply the only option to secure their future.
A majority of focus group participants reported that they initially rejected the idea of resettlement outright, while a minority immediately and wholeheartedly embraced it as they saw no future for themselves in Syria. For many who initially rejected the idea, taking refuge in Lebanon and Jordan left open the option of returning home should it become possible. Others were simply not ready to start a new life, learn a new language, and adapt to a different culture. They were worried about “dying in a foreign land,” as one participant put it.
Mothers, in particular, were worried about cultural differences and were afraid “to lose their children” in European countries with different moral values. Souad, from Damascus, said, “I am not encouraged to go to Europe. We found it difficult to adapt even in Lebanon so how would we cope elsewhere?”7 A considerable number of participants mentioned having rejected offers of asylum in Europe and North America.
However, the refugees have generally become less resistant to the idea of resettlement over time, mainly because of the enduring political stalemate and insecurity in Syria and the worsening conditions in their host countries. Nasser, from Rural Damascus, remarked, “We went to Jordan in part because it is a Muslim country, with the same cultural traditions and values, and there is some social familiarity. Our desire now is to leave, to be resettled in another country, whether Europe or another Arab country, for employment opportunities . . . and for the education of the children. The future of our children would be secure.”8
Refugees in Lebanon expressed fewer current reservations about resettlement than those refugees in Jordan; however, because a majority in both countries still hope to return to Syria, perspectives on the duration of resettlement varied according to individual or family situations. For some, especially middle-aged individuals, the stay in Europe would be temporary, offering safety and security, the promise of a decent standard of living, and educational opportunities for their children—at least until the situation in Syria stabilized sufficiently. The only other option would be to remain in their host countries, given all the risks in going back to Syria.
Most of the participants also remarked that the timing for resettlement was contingent upon a political transition in Syria. Rashed, a young refugee from Rural Damascus, summarized this attitude well: “I have started thinking [about leaving]. It is impossible for me to return to Syria for as long as Bashar al-Assad is in power. If anyone gets the chance to travel to Europe, they will not turn it down.”9
“I have started thinking [about leaving]. It is impossible for me to return to Syria for as long as Bashar al-Assad is in power. If anyone gets the chance to travel to Europe, they will not turn it down.”
Views on Timing
Many refugees worry about returning too soon, before a comprehensive solution to the country’s conflict is reached. This may be due to the uncertain security situation in Syria or the restrictive policies in host countries, especially Jordan, where refugees who travel to Syria are barred from reentering.
In Lebanon, porous borders have allowed a limited number of refugees to travel back to Syria for medical care or to check on family and property. According to the focus group participants, a small number of middle-aged and older individuals have returned to Syria periodically to receive treatment for chronic diseases—treatment that they cannot afford in Lebanon. Other refugees, particularly youths, felt pressure to go home because of the systematic humiliation they faced in Lebanon. However, several refugees recounted stories of young men who had returned to Syria out of despair, only to die because of forced conscription or conflict in their areas. In reflection, Aisha, from Homs, asked laconically, “Would anyone walk toward death on their feet?”10
In contrast, in Jordan, the government’s legislative framework bars refugees from returning if they leave the country.11 In 2015, according to friends and family members of those involved, refugees who were driven to return to Daraa by dire living conditions and dwindling humanitarian aid later regretted their decision, after Daraa came under opposition control.12 As Umm Mohammed, from Daraa, put it: “Once my son’s family had joined him in Daraa, fighting broke out and they had to move to a nearby village. Now he regrets his return. He is without a job and relies on his siblings in Jordan to send him some money to survive.”13 Indeed, when Daraa fell back under regime control, her son’s family was forced to leave again but was unable to reenter Jordan.14
Refugees in Jordan, like those in Lebanon, also told stories of relatives or acquaintances who had returned to Syria, only to be forced to serve in the army and die on the battlefront. Others, especially refugees in Lebanon, reported that the Syrian authorities prevented them from going back to their areas of origin.
It is clear from these examples that refugees are extremely wary about returning to Syria before a comprehensive settlement can create better conditions for a return. Their justifications for this reluctance challenge those in Lebanon and Jordan who argue that a return to Syria is possible today. Returning now could have highly negative, indeed potentially fatal, consequences for refugees. At the same time, a return to Syria may be very different than a return to one’s area of origin, as the government may not allow them to do so.
What They Need to Return
Despite an overwhelming desire to go home, refugees are unlikely to return voluntarily in the near future, even if there is an announced cessation of hostilities. The focus group participants emphasized a number of preconditions, including guarantees of safety and security, the potential for a sustainable political transition, a return to their areas of origin, the establishment of judicial mechanisms to hold perpetrators accountable for their war crimes, and economic opportunities.
In both Lebanon and Jordan, most refugees were skeptical that stability and order would be restored in Syria anytime soon. Even pro-regime participants expressed mixed opinions about the country’s future; while some were confident that things are going in the right direction, with the regime regaining control of territory, others were convinced that Syria will remain unstable for some time. Farah, from Rural Damascus, described her expectations: “In the coming period, we will definitely not have a government. It will be war, warlords, and the chaos of conflict.”15
Farah, from Rural Damascus, described her expectations: “In the coming period, we will definitely not have a government. It will be war, warlords, and the chaos of conflict.”
Most refugees also agreed that a return is impossible under the current circumstances, but at the same time, felt that they no longer have a place to call home. The refugees were also terrified of what the future might hold for them and their children. Many have lost most of what they owned and are living in squalid conditions. They are also facing mounting personal debt and dwindling safety nets as UN organizations cut back on their support for Syrian refugees in host countries.16 Their children are not getting the education they need to secure a productive future. In essence, they are stuck in limbo, unable to build meaningful lives in exile and unable to return home.
Safety and Security First
Most focus group participants said safety and security were their primary preconditions for a return, followed by a sustainable political transition, the availability of livelihood opportunities, and access to their homes and services. For most of the refugees, however, these conditions were closely interrelated. They believed that the restoration of safety and security was impossible without political change or a different government in Syria (see figure 2). Bilal, a young refugee from Rural Damascus, remarked, “We are all looking to live safely, we are living without dignity in Lebanon, but it is what it is. This is better than Syria security-wise for our children and siblings. We will return to Syria if the regime is gone and there is security, which means there is no killing and no bombings.”17 However, what constituted safety and security varied among refugees depended on their political affiliation and gender.
Bilal, a young refugee from Rural Damascus, remarked, “We are all looking to live safely, we are living without dignity in Lebanon, but it is what it is. This is better than Syria security-wise for our children and siblings. We will return to Syria if the regime is gone and there is security, which means there is no killing and no bombings.”
For a majority of refugees, safety and security included an end to aerial bombardments and sieges, the dissolution of armed groups and random checkpoints, the dismantling of militias, and an end to arbitrary arrests. Most refugees expressed their unhappiness with the militarization of society and the multiplicity of armed factions. They believed that only legitimate authorities should be permitted to use violence, under the rule of law. However, pro-regime and anti-regime refugees defined these authorities differently. Pro-regime refugees believed that the current government should remain in control of the security services, while anti-regime refugees believed that the security services should be reformed through a political transition that places someone else in control.
Most anti-regime refugees viewed local actors—on all sides of the conflict—as incapable of ensuring their security. Both pro-regime and anti-regime refugees generally believed that only international actors could provide genuine guarantees—although, paradoxically, pro-regime participants said they trusted the Assad regime and were exasperated with the foreign presence in Syria. Many anti-regime refugees, despite their criticism of Russia and the United States at the political level, believed that both countries had enough leverage over the different local actors to impose security and meet their conditions for a return.
Anti-regime refugees were also largely in favor of using an international force, such as United Nations peacekeepers, to guarantee their security and were open to returning under such conditions. Pro-regime refugees were also open to it, provided that the peacekeepers’ role was confined to helping the current Syrian government restore order and regain control over its territory. For anti-regime refugees, key conditions for their safety and the country’s stability also included the release of all political detainees and the withdrawal of foreign forces and militias. The latter condition reflects a narrative prevalent among refugees that the Syrian conflict has become a proxy war between non-Syrians.
Assad’s continued presence also factored into discussions about safety. Many refugees, especially in Jordan, linked the improvement of conditions in Syria with Assad’s departure, saying his presence makes them feel unsafe and is preventing their return. Meanwhile, a minority of refugees, mainly young males and older females, suggested that only a Sunni president would make them feel safe. However, other refugees in the same focus groups often countered this view, stating that it is political performance rather than the sect of the president that matters.
It is important to note that the threshold for safety and security as a condition for return appears to be much higher among refugees than among internally displaced persons—likely because they have already embarked on an arduous journey outside the country. The International Organization for Migration reported that between January and October 2017 more than 710,000 internally displaced persons returned to their areas of origin, while only 30,000 refugees returned.18 However, the categories used to define return are unclear, raising questions about the figures’ accuracy. Among the refugees, some returned to Syria as part of locally negotiated deals in Lebanon—but to locations other than their areas of origin.19 In turn, others made their way back either voluntarily or by force from Jordan and Turkey. Regardless of this definitional issue, a mass return of refugees under the current security conditions seems unlikely.
A Political Transition
A mass return seems even less likely when factoring in politics. Most focus group participants indicated that they would not go back unless political conditions were favorable, even if there were available jobs, services, and housing. Notably, when asked if they would return under favorable political conditions but without economic opportunities or housing, most refugees said they would do so. Khouloud, from Rural Damascus, stated, “If Bashar al-Assad is removed and there is security in Syria, even if there is no food or drink, we would get flour and make it with our hands.”20
Khouloud, from Rural Damascus, stated, “If Bashar al-Assad is removed and there is security in Syria, even if there is no food or drink, we would get flour and make it with our hands.”
Specifically, most participants said a change in the form of governance was their highest priority, followed by the availability of housing and government services for participants above age twenty-five and the availability of livelihood opportunities for those below age twenty-five. A large number of refugees also indicated that even if their homes were destroyed, they would still return to Syria if security and political conditions allowed it and jobs were available. They insisted they would pitch a tent on the rubble of their homes and rebuild them.
When asked whether Assad’s presence would impact their willingness to return, again, most pro-regime participants indicated that they would not return if he was removed from power. In contrast, most anti-regime refugees affirmed that they would not go back if he remained in power, believing that there were no guarantees for their security under the current regime. Tareq, a young refugee from Homs, remarked, “I used to work as an undertaker in Syria. My job was to bury the martyrs. When I saw what they had done to them, how they were cut up with knives, no way, there is no trust. Even if they secure everything we need, there is no trust.”21 A small number of anti-regime refugees indicated that they were resigned to the possibility of Assad’s presence and that they would return if security and jobs were guaranteed—as they do not want to remain in exile indefinitely. Other anti-regime refugees said that if forced to go back under the current regime, they would seek to oppose it, as they would not let Assad take over the country.
A Focus on Women and Youth
While poor living conditions in host countries have played a role in shaping attitudes toward return, many refugees remained reluctant to go back home. Indeed, their fear of the repercussions of return often outweigh the challenges they face in host countries. For example, they were worried that they would be forced to take part in the conflict and were concerned about the safety and security of their families. Youths, in particular, were worried about forced conscription and were more keen to resettle in a third country, with the hope of building a better future for themselves. Women, while less enthusiastic about resettlement, similarly did not want to return with their children unless significant security guarantees were in place.
Female refugees generally took a more uncompromising position than males on the question of return and the conditions they required. More than two-thirds of the female focus group participants were either undecided or reluctantly sought to resettle in another country, believing it to be the better of two evils, while only one-third sought to return to Syria. In contrast, more than half of the male participants were looking forward to returning to Syria, while the others were undecided or sought to resettle in another country. A small minority of both male and female refugees wanted to remain in their host country.
The more hardline position on the question of return to Syria among females was driven by a number of considerations. As mothers or grandmothers, most were unwilling to take risks by moving their children and families into places characterized by uncertainty, where safety and security under the current regime was, as far as they were concerned, simply not possible.
In addition to improved security and political conditions, women also require access to basic services, particularly education and healthcare, and housing support. For female refugees, a political transition and access to adequate basic services went hand in hand. Yet the former was a higher priority, as a move back to Syria under the current regime meant they were endangering their families by taking them into a conflict zone. Most female focus group participants expressed the need for transitional justice mechanisms—specifically for the release of detainees, restitution of property, the prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes, and the disarming of armed groups.
The desire to return tends to increase with the age of the refugee. Of the focus group participants below age twenty-five, one-third looked forward to returning and more than half were either undecided or preferred to resettle elsewhere. A negligible number sought to remain in Jordan or Lebanon. In contrast, more than half of those above age forty looked forward to going back to Syria.
The sense of resignation, entrapment, and despair was more pronounced among youths than their elders. This is partly due to the limited opportunities available to them to build a future in host countries. Some would like to go back to Syria but fear being imprisoned by the regime for evading conscription, before being sent to the front to die. While most hoped to resettle in Europe, due to desperation, a lack of prospects in host countries, and the difficulty of traveling abroad, a small minority were considering returning to Syria rather than continuing to live in humiliation, even if they risked death. A few were resigned to adapting to the present situation. Within this group, most suggested they would like to return to Syria and find ways of resisting the Assad regime from within—without taking up arms—and eventually contribute to rebuilding their country.
Fear of mandatory conscription drove most of the young focus group participants—both pro- and anti-regime—out of Syria and has kept them out.22 The fears of anti-regime refugees were also related to sectarianism. A recurring narrative among male anti-regime youths was that Sunni conscripts were usually sent to the front lines to die, while Alawites from the Syrian president’s minority community were usually kept away from the front. Ahmad, from Aleppo, remarked, “Because of the war, they will place me, the Sunni, at the front and leave the Alawite behind me. Why would they place me at the front? Who am I going to fight? Why is the Alawite hiding behind me? Why should I die and not the Alawite?”23
Recently promulgated laws on conscription will make it much harder for young men to go back.24 Legislative decree 24/2017 denies the Syrian Army’s general command the authority to provide exemptions from military service. Those males between ages eighteen and forty-two who do not join the army are required to pay a fine of $8,000 within three months of reaching the age of conscription. If they do not join subsequently, they are imprisoned for a year and penalized $200 for every year after the starting date of conscription, up to a maximum of $2,000. They also risk having their assets, such as property or cash, seized until payment is completed.
Ghazi, a young Syrian living in Tripoli, sarcastically stated, “The problem is that you can go to Syria. There are many roads that lead to Syria. But once there what do you do? Either you join the army or you need around $3–$4 billion.”25
Notably, negative attitudes toward conscription did not translate to a rejection of the army. On the contrary, many young refugees professed their respect for the army as an important state institution and believed it was their duty to serve their country. Rather, they opposed serving the regime and killing their fellow citizens. This reaction reflects a deep sense of patriotism among Syrians; focus group participants repeatedly stated, “It is important to serve the country, but I did not want to kill my brethren or serve the regime.”
A Return to Area of Origin
The areas of origin of refugees also shaped their attitudes toward return. Individuals originating from areas where the uprising occurred and areas that subsequently became rebel strongholds were the most reluctant, even terrified, to return to Syria. For example, the refugees from Homs and Aleppo were the least interested in returning and the most interested in seeking asylum elsewhere. In contrast, refugees from the parts of Rural Damascus that had not witnessed sieges and aerial bombardments were more willing to return.
For an overwhelming majority of focus group participants, a return to Syria was synonymous with going back to their homes and areas of origin. However, they were scared of what they would find. Many expressed concern that they would not recognize their neighborhoods, either due to widespread destruction or because their former neighbors had left or even emigrated.
Many refugees from Aleppo, Daraa, Homs, and Zabadani also believed that they would not be allowed to go back to their neighborhoods. Refugees have limited access to reliable information on recent government decrees, especially related to housing, land, and property rights. This means that many are relying on informal networks and word of mouth, generating considerable anxiety among refugee communities. Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs, outlined some of vetting procedures the regime has established and that will likely make a return very difficult. To recover their homes, returnees must submit a legal document proving their place of origin and ownership of their property. They must also undergo a security check by local police to determine that they have no security or felony charges pending.26 Recently enacted regulations further mandate that refugees wanting to reclaim their property must do so in person. Under these circumstances, many refugees feared that they would be arrested, even if they had not participated in the conflict. Men below age forty-two also feared that they would be forcibly enrolled in the army. Many indicated that they simply do not have the required legal documentation.
And while the Syrian conflict is mostly political in nature, its ethnic and sectarian overtones in some areas add another layer of complexity. Following the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq,27 ethnic or sectarian majorities seemed to return home much more rapidly than minorities after a phase of displacement. This will not be the case in Syria; most refugees are Sunni Muslim, majority in Syria, and oppose the regime. With Assad in power, and in view of widespread lawlessness and destruction, the prospects for a voluntary refugee return are quite dim. For many, returning to their homes seems unlikely in view of the regime’s ongoing efforts to engage in population resettlement.28 The social fabric of many areas is being changed beyond recognition, a situation refugees expressed considerable concern over.
Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities, theoretically protected by the regime, were also afraid of returning. They worried that the damage done to Syria may never be repaired. Their trust in the regime and satisfaction with its military victories did not translate into optimism regarding Syria’s future, as many were skeptical that the end of hostilities would be followed by safety, order, and stability. In this context, and with the diminishing likelihood that refugees will return to their areas of origin, it is not surprising that refugees are increasingly seeing resettlement as the only viable option to guarantee their safety and protection.
Access to Property
Refugees also want to return to their own homes and receive support to restart their lives. Yet given the widespread destruction in Syria’s cities and towns, the condition of homes complicates the prospects of return for most refugees. According to World Bank estimates, 30 percent of Syria’s housing stock has been partially or completely destroyed, mostly in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Idlib, and Palmyra.29
Half of the focus group participants in Jordan and two-thirds in Lebanon indicated that their homes were either partially or fully destroyed. Other refugees indicated that their homes were occupied by displaced Syrians or regime-affiliated entities, such as pro-Iran militias; particularly concerned were refugees from Daraa, Homs, Rural Damascus, and Zabadani, as well as the Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zaynab, where some areas were once controlled by the Islamic State or pro-Iran militias.30 Ibrahim, from Rural Damascus, explained his departure: “The reason was the militias, Iranian militias . . . Iraqi militias . . . there seemed to have been a deliberate plan to force people out.”31
In this context, refugees voiced significant concern about housing, land, and property rights. Prior to the conflict, much of the property in Syria was informal; properties were built without proper permits or on publicly owned land and as part of informal settlements. A large portion of these properties have been destroyed during the years of fighting.32 Lamia, from Rural Damascus, said, “They tell me that whichever house has an absentee owner is immediately occupied by the army, even if there is a tenant. . . . They take the lease, throw the tenant out, and take the house.”33
“They tell me that whichever house has an absentee owner is immediately occupied by the army, even if there is a tenant. . . . They take the lease, throw the tenant out, and take the house.”
Almost half of the focus group participants left Syria without title deeds or legal documentation proving ownership of their properties (see figure 3). Among those whose houses were destroyed, at least half did not have any form of documentation, which will make it extremely difficult to recover their homes. Further, various reports from Syria indicate that the regime has used land registries to identify constituencies, or areas, allied with the opposition. The regime then organized military campaigns to specifically target these areas and collectively punish and demoralize their civilian populations—with the aim of forcing them to turn against the opposition.34
Multiple reports from 2016 also claim that the regime has been destroying land registries throughout Syria to erase proof of ownership,35 as well as forging new ownership records in favor of pro-regime constituents.36 A report covering the situation in Homs observed, “In July 2013, the Land Registry office that housed official documentation of property ownership was destroyed in a fire, which some believed to be intentional as it was the only structure burned in the most secure part of the city.”37
Most focus group participants desired to return to their areas of origin even if their homes were no longer standing and even if conditions were better elsewhere in Syria. For some refugees, they simply wanted to put an end to their condition of displacement. Farida, from Homs, stated, “We are tired of the label ‘refugee.’”38 Most asserted that they would rebuild their homes with their own hands if the political and security conditions were favorable—irrespective of work opportunities and the availability of services. However, many refugees also mentioned the need for financial support to rebuild their properties. Female participants were the most adamant about this, believing it to be the government’s duty to rebuild. A small minority of participants stated that all of Syria was home to them and that they would settle in another part of the country if it was the only option.
The Syria They Want to See
Asking refugees to describe what kind of Syria they would like to see is essential for gaining a better understanding of what will motivate them to go back. Most focus group participants had a clear vision of the Syria they want. The defining characteristics were shaped by their sense of safety, security, and justice but also their perceptions of ongoing international efforts to end the Syrian conflict.
A Free Syria
A large majority, many of whom oppose the Assad regime, envisioned a Syria that adheres to the values of freedom, equality, and justice and that is governed democratically, under the rule of law. Many stressed the need for reconciliation, national unity, and coexistence, highlighting Europe as a model because of its respect for the rule of law, human dignity, and human rights.
Asmahan, living in Beirut, said, “What is freedom? Freedom is to be an entity [to exist]. To have rights, not to have the wife or the son of an officer come take what is yours.”39
Asmahan, living in Beirut, said, “What is freedom? Freedom is to be an entity [to exist]. To have rights, not to have the wife or the son of an officer come take what is yours.”
In addition to insisting on reconciliation and adamantly asserting that Syrians could work and live together as before, the focus group participants were unwilling to assign blame for the conflict to one sectarian or ethnic community. They underline that if left alone, as Syrians, they would be able to work out their differences.
However, these visions of a future Syria were tempered by an ambient sense of demoralization among the refugees. Most focus group participants were pessimistic about the future and did not trust that stability and order would soon be restored. They also believed that violence in Syria would likely just take other forms. They feared the militarization of society and the hegemony of warlords in any postconflict settlement. Even pro-regime participants expressed mixed opinions about Syria’s future. While some adopted the regime’s narrative that order and stability would soon prevail, others were skeptical and argued that improvement would take time.
The despondency felt by refugees also stems from the profound sense of abandonment by the international community and the belief that if external parties to the Syrian conflict wanted to impose peace and stability, they could do it. Moreover, it stems from refugees’ general lack of confidence in the Astana and Geneva peace processes: “We see a lot of talk, but in reality, little action on the ground,” said Samira, from Rural Damascus.40 In essence, most were convinced that the peace processes are largely designed to advance the interests of the parties involved— particularly Russia, the United States, and Iran—and not Syria or Syrians.
A Territorially United Syria
The focus group participants discussed several different approaches to the governance of Syria, namely federalism, decentralization, and power sharing. They all emphatically rejected any approach that might lead to Syria’s fragmentation.
When participants were asked to consider federalism, the reactions were mixed. A minority of refugees appreciated the notion of being able to govern themselves at a regional level. But a majority rejected the idea outright, believing that a federal Syria would be broken up into multiple parts. Showing an erroneous understanding of federalism, many refugees echoed the sentiment of Ibtissam, from Rural Damascus: “We don’t want to go back to a Syria where we need visas to cross from one region to the other.” She emphasized, “We would end up needing a passport to travel from Aleppo to Homs.”41
Refugees were generally more accepting of administrative decentralization. While a majority did not know what this entailed, the idea of direct representation and leverage over one’s local representatives was attractive to them. Only a small minority were aware of the government’s 2011 decree on decentralization (Decree 107),42 which granted more political and financial prerogatives—including for local development projects—to local elected councils, provincial councils, and governors.43 However, most refugees were simply unsure of its ramifications and what it would mean for them.
While most participants were adamant that sectarianism prior to the conflict was nonexistent, both pro-regime and anti-regime refugees were ready to accept power sharing based on ethnic and religious identity, seeing it as a pragmatic way to address the Syrian conflict and protect minorities. A majority of the refugees were Sunni Muslim, and most viewed the conflict to be political rather than sectarian in nature. Some even pointed out that many Sunnis were supporting the regime to protect their business interests. While a minority of refugees expressed concern that the share of Sunnis in power relative to the community’s demographic size would decline under a sectarian or ethnic power-sharing system, all were adamant about the need for inclusive governance mechanisms in which all Syrians, irrespective of sectarian or ethnic identity, participated. A small number of refugees openly voiced their concern about having an Alawite rule the country; essentially, a Sunni president would have to be in power for them to feel safe.
An Inclusive Syria
While pro-regime and anti-regime refugees agreed on the need for inclusive power sharing, there was no consensus on the political options for Syria and the potential form of government. While anti-regime refugees favored a national unity government, despite their skepticism about its ability to stabilize Syria, pro-regime refugees rejected this outright. They discredited all political opposition groups and potential alternatives to the Assad regime.
Recognizing that a complete change in government is unlikely because of the regime’s gradual consolidation of power and the support of Russia and Iran, anti-regime refugees were willing to consider a transitional government that included both regime and opposition figures. Pro-regime refugees were less willing to compromise; they believed they were winning the conflict and expressed disdain for opposition members, whom they view as traitors. They also rejected possible international oversight of a future political process and of the regime. This reflects the regime’s position, which is that it will oppose any political settlement that transfers the full executive powers of President Bashar al-Assad to a transitional government. By rejecting this proposal, as part of the Geneva peace process, the regime can elude international supervision of Syria’s postconflict situation.
These disagreements aside, both pro-regime and anti-regime refugees unanimously opposed proposals to freeze the front lines between the factions. They feared that the enforcement of deescalation zones would lead to the breakup of Syria. The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has also said that these zones—proposed during the Astana peace talks—could result in a “soft partition” of Syria.44 Similarly, all the refugees firmly rejected the idea of creating “safe zones” for them inside Syria. Many refugees repeatedly noted that safe zones are safe today but not so much tomorrow.
A Representative Syria
Most refugees contended that the end of the conflict could only be brokered by non-Syrians and that Syrians would have little say in the process. However, they had lost faith in the current national or international actors involved—including Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries—and in the ongoing political peace processes. They claimed that all these international actors were sacrificing Syria and its citizens to advance their own goals. Both pro-regime and anti-regime refugees also expressed a sense of fatigue and disgust with regard to politics and politicians.
Most refugees argued that no one represented them. While pro-regime participants explicitly supported Assad, they were quite detached from politics in general. Most stated that politics was too complicated, that it was merely a source of problems, and that they wanted nothing to do with it. All they yearned for was a normal life.
Anti-regime refugees expressed their disappointment with all the political actors in Syria and their lack of confidence in the leadership of various opposition groups within and outside Syria. Most believed these actors and groups were working for their own interests, were too divided, or had betrayed the Syrian people and the principles of the revolution. Yet a significant number distinguished between those fighting in Syria, whom they saw as more legitimate representatives of Syrians since they were on the ground, and the opposition in exile, whom they referred to as the “hotels opposition.” Mansour, from Zabadani, said, “We no longer know the difference between those who are good and those who are not. We only have confidence in God. Anyone who represents me has to empathize with me, with my pain, and with the tragedy I am living.”45
Mansour, from Zabadani, said, “We no longer know the difference between those who are good and those who are not. We only have confidence in God. Anyone who represents me has to empathize with me, with my pain, and with the tragedy I am living.”
At the same time, anti-regime refugees expressed sympathy and a certain nostalgia for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), believing that it truly exemplified the values and goals of the Syrian revolution—that it engaged in a nonsectarian conflict that was focused on fighting the regime. Yet they were very critical and cynical about what the FSA had become, pointing out that corruption and personal agendas had led to its irrelevance.
Notably, some refugees in Jordan expressed more positive views about opposition figures. They stated that despite the opposition’s shortcomings, they still felt represented by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which speaks for the opposition in Geneva.
A Just Syria
Among the focus group participants, justice primarily related to the concepts of rule of law and accountability—values seen as central to governance and state functions. Mahmoud, from Zabadani, said, “Justice is . . . to have a change in government, to have a justice ministry. If someone kills, they are held accountable. If you complain, someone listens. If you tell them your house was destroyed, they help you or give you a loan. In other words, having a state. Right now, we don’t have the qualities of a state in Syria.”46
When discussing how justice would be administered in a postwar Syria, the participants engaged in heated debates over the idea of amnesty. Two distinct understandings of amnesty prevailed: some refugees associated it with a presidential pardon of all those who had evaded conscription or participated in activities opposed to the regime, and others associated it with a blanket impunity for all crimes committed during the conflict.
While pro-regime refugees were very hostile to the idea of a presidential pardon, anti-regime refugees were more clearly split. Most pro-regime refugees insisted that there was a real need to prosecute those, as they put it, who had conspired against Syria. Among anti-regime refugees, some asserted that they would not return to Syria on the basis of a presidential pardon, which they did not trust. Others believed it was a necessary prerequisite for return, given refugees’ widespread fear of arrest for having participated in protests or avoided military conscription. Attitudes on the release of detainees were also shaped by political affiliation. While anti-regime refugees insisted on the need to release all detainees, pro-regime refugees believed them to be criminals who had to be held accountable.
For those refugees who associated amnesty with a wider, blanket impunity, it either meant—depending on political affiliation—pardoning crimes committed by regime officials, forces, and their allies, or, alternatively, pardoning opposition groups. While all pro-regime refugees adamantly opposed a blanket approach, anti-regime refugees were again more divided in their opinions. Most anti-regime refugees, especially women and youths, viewed a blanket amnesty negatively, believing that a sustainable peace was not possible without justice and accountability and that Assad should not get away with his crimes. Some felt it would simply pave the way for further conflict and encourage individuals seeking justice to take matters into their own hands. Those in favor of the approach considered it to be a necessary evil. A common argument, particularly among older men, was that “we can’t put the entire Syrian people on trial.”
Debates over who should be given amnesty, should it be possible, resulted in a general agreement that those who gave orders to kill should be held accountable, while lesser crimes, such as theft, could be pardoned. However, when confronted with the reality that they might one day encounter the person who committed murder, particularly of a loved one, many refugees said that they might try to exact revenge and that trials were necessary to prevent people from administering their own justice.
Issam, from Rural Damascus, stated, “To see the person who killed my brother and my cousin living normally, walking around, and enjoying himself, impossible! No, I will not return because there will be civil strife. People will say, ‘I will commit murder today and be pardoned through an amnesty tomorrow.’”47
Issam, from Rural Damascus, stated, “To see the person who killed my brother and my cousin living normally, walking around, and enjoying himself, impossible! No, I will not return because there will be civil strife. People will say, ‘I will commit murder today and be pardoned through an amnesty tomorrow.’”
A majority of anti-regime refugees expressed little faith in the current legal system in Syria, seeing it as a tool of the regime that lacks integrity and independence. Yet, when asked how those prosecuted for war crimes should be judged, many spontaneously answered, “They should be judged by the people.” This implied that criminals should be tried in Syria, by Syrians. But many anti-regime refugees indicated that only the International Criminal Court would be able to pursue such prosecutions—although they did highlight the need for collaboration between international judicial bodies and Syrian legal entities. What these entities would be, in view of their distrust of the Syrian judiciary, was never made clear.
1 Focus group discussion no. 8 in Saadnayel in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, February 19, 2017.
2 Médecins Sans Frontières, “Fleeing the Violence in Syria: Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” Médecins Sans Frontières, August 2012, http://www.msf.or.jp/library/pressreport/pdf/MS1221_LebanonReport_Final_LoRes_v2.pdf.
3 Focus group discussion no. 8 in Saadnayel in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, February 19, 2017.
4 Focus group discussion no. 2 in Beirut, Lebanon, February 1, 2017. The place of origin for Fadi was not recorded.
5 Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, “Syria IDP Figures Analysis,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, no date, http://www.internal-displacement.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/syria/figures-analysis.
6 Focus group discussion no. 21 in Tripoli, Lebanon, June 6, 2017.
7 Focus group discussion no. 24 in Sidon, Lebanon, July 29, 2017.
8 Focus group discussion no. 39 in Irbid, Jordan, August 15, 2017.
9 Focus group discussion no. 23 in Ghazzeh in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, July 17, 2017.
10 Focus group discussion no. 20 in Tripoli, Lebanon, June 6, 2017.
11 Human Rights Watch, “‘I Have No Idea Why They Sent Us Back. ’”
12 “Refugees Return to Daraa After Recent Rebel Gains,” Syria Direct, April 21, 2015,http://syriadirect.org/news/refugees-return-to-daraa-after-recent-rebel-gains/.
13 Focus group discussion no. 17 in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, April 23, 2017.
14 Amnesty International, “Syria-Jordan Border.”
15 Focus group discussion no. 22 in Ghazzeh in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, July 17, 2017.
16 Stephanie Nebehay, “UN Warns of New Syrian Refugee Wave to Europe If Aid Dries Up,” Reuters, December 12, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-un-refugees/u-n-warns-of-new-syrian-refugee-wave-to-europe-if-aid-dries-up-idUSKBN1E629V?il=0; Aron Lund, “For Syria, There’s Money for Missiles, but No Funding for Food,” Century Foundation, April 11, 2017, https://tcf.org/content/commentary/syria-theres-money-missiles-no-funding-food/; and Najia Houssari, “UNHCR Stops Cash Aid to 20,000 Syrian Families in Lebanon,” Arab News, September 15, 2017, http://www.arabnews.com/node/1161436/middle-east.
17 Focus group discussion no. 23 in Ghazzeh in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, July 17, 2017.
18 International Organization for Migration, “Nearly 715,000 Syrian Displaced Returned Home Between January and October 2017,” press release, International Organization for Migration, November 21, 2017, https://www.iom.int/news/nearly-715000-syrian-displaced-returned-home-between-january-and-october-2017.
19 Maha Yahya, “Broken Peaces,” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 31, 2017, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/68424; and Maha Yahya, “Blaming the Victims,” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 31, 2017, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/72680.
20 Focus group discussion no. 35 in Zarqa, Jordan, August 14, 2017.
21 Focus group discussion no. 7 in Saadnayel in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, February 19, 2017.
22 Syrian Arab Republic Parliament, “Al-marsum al-tashri‘i 30 li ‘am 2007, qanoune khidmat al-‘alam” [Legislative Decree 30 of 2007, Law on Military Service] (Damascus: Syria, 2007), http://parliament.gov.sy/arabic/index.php?node=201&nid=4921&.
23 Focus group discussion no. 33 in Amman, Jordan, August 13, 2017.
24 “Majlis Al-cha‘b Yuqoru mashru‘ qanoun yata‘alaqu biman tajawaza sin sl-taklif lil khidmat al-ilzamiya wa ‘akhar hawla rabt al-sijil al-‘amilin fi al-dawla bi wizarat al-tanmiya al-idariyya’” [The people’s assembly approves a draft law concerning those who have passed the mandatory age of compulsory service and another one on linking the public register of state workers to the Ministry of Administrative Development], SANA, November 8, 2017.
25 Focus group discussion no. 19 in Tripoli, Lebanon, May 19, 2017.
26 Dalia Niama, “Tahqiq: ahya’ Homs mazalat moudammara ba‘d morour sanawat ‘ala intissar Al-Assad” [Investigation: neighborhoods of Homs remain devastated years after Assad’s victory], Reuters, August 18, 2017,
27 Bogdan Ivanisevic, “Legacy of War: Minority Returns in the Balkans,” cited in Human Rights Watch World Report: Human Rights and Armed Conflicts (Human Rights Watch, 2004), 351–75, https://www.hrw.org/legacy/wr2k4/download/wr2k4.pdf; and Joseph Sassoon, The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 153–64.
28 Amnesty International, “‘We Leave or We Die’: Forced Displacement under Syria’s ‘Reconciliation’ Agreements,” Amnesty International, November 12, 2017, 6–78, https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/we-leave-or-we-die-forced-displacement-under-syrias-reconciliation-agreements/; and Fabrice Balanche, “Ethnic Cleansing Threatens Syria’s Unity,” Washington Institute, December 3, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/ethnic-cleansing-threatens-syrias-unity.
29 World Bank, The Toll of War.
30 Martin Chulov, “Iran Repopulates Syria With Shia Muslims to Help Tighten Regime’s Control,” Guardian, January 13, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/13/irans-syria-project-pushing-population-shifts-to-increase-influence.
31 Focus group discussion no. 39 in Irbid, Jordan, August 15, 2017.
32 Valérie Clerc, “Informal Settlements in the Syrian Conflict: Urban Planning as a Weapon,” Built Environment 40, no. 1 (2014): 34–51.
33 Focus group discussion no. 32 in Amman, Jordan, August 13, 2017.
34 Jon Unruh,“Weaponization of the Land and Property Rights System in the Syrian Civil War: Facilitating Restitution?,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding,March 2016, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298728439_Weaponization_of_the_Land_and_Property_Rights_system_in_the_Syrian_civil_war_facilitating_restitution.
35 Jihad Yazigi, “Destruct to Reconstruct: How the Syrian Regime Capitalises on Property Destruction and Land Legislation,” Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Study, July 2017, http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/13562.pdf.
36 “Rughma tahjir nisf sukaniha . . . dimughrafyan Homs tuhafizu ‘ala thabatuha hatta al-an” [Despite the displacement of half of its population . . . demographically Homs conserves its stability until now], Enab Baladi, January 31, 2016, https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/62787;“Mashrou‘ istitani . . . Iran taghzu souq al-‘aqarat fi Dimashq wa Homs” [A settlement project . . . Iran invades the real estate market in Damascus and Homs], Huffington Post Arabic, March 26, 2016, http://www.huffpostarabi.com/2016/03/26/story_n_9549892.html; and “Souriyya: ‘Istimlak’ manzil fi mantaqa mouhajjara?” [Syria: “the appropriation” of a house in an area where people have been displaced?], Al-Modon Online, November 17, 2016, http://www.almodon.com/arabworld/2016/11/17/موال-للنظام-وتريد-استملاك-منزل-في-منطقة-سنية-مهجرة.
37 Syria Institute and PAX, No Return to Homs: A Case Study on Demographic Engineering in Syria (Washington, DC: Syria Institute and PAX, 2017), 43.
38 Focus group discussion no. 29 in Amman, Jordan, August 10, 2017.
39 Focus group discussion no. 3 in Beirut, Lebanon, February 6, 2017.
40 Focus group discussion no. 35 in Zarqa, Jordan, August 14, 2017.
41 Focus group discussion no. 32 in Amman, Jordan, August 13, 2017.
42 Samer Araabi, “Syria’s Decentralization Map,” Sada, Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, March 23, 2017, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/68372; and Syrian Arab Republic Parliament, “Al-marsum al-tashri‘i 107 li ‘am 2011 qanoun al-idara al-mahaliyya” [Legislative decree 107 of the 2011 law on local administration] (Damascus: Syria, 2011), http://parliament.gov.sy/arabic/index.php?node=5575&cat=4390. The law stipulates the creation of elected local councils with prerogatives regarding planning and budgeting.
43 Samer Aarabi, “Syria’s Decentralization Roadmap,” Sada (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 23, 2017, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/68372.
44 Associated Press, “The Latest: UN Envoy Cautions Against Soft Syria Partition,” Business Insider, May 11, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-the-latest-un-envoy-cautions-against-soft-syria-partition-2017-5.
45 Author interview with Mansour, conducted in Saadnayel in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, February 24, 2017.
46 Author interview with Mahmoud from Zabadani, conducted in Ghazzeh in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, July 17, 2017.
47 Focus group discussion no. 23 in Ghazzeh in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, July 17, 2017.