Syrian refugee children in Lebanon
Saskia Baas

-Analysis-

BEIRUT — More than 12 million Syrians have been displaced since 2011 — that is more than half of Syria's pre-war population. And most want nothing more than to return home.

Yet the situation in the country remains too unsafe at the moment. Whole cities have been destroyed, and many areas are cluttered with land mines and unexploded explosives, posing further challenges to the safe, voluntary and sustainable repatriation of refugees to Syria. Yet despite these risks, a small number of refugees do return to Syria each month. While this may seem like a positive development, research by the Durable Solutions Platform, an NGO-led research initiative, indicates that those returning are actually forced to do so in light of unsafe and precarious living conditions in asylum. It is not a sign that the situation in Syria has improved.

Over the past year, we have spoken to more than 1,000 Syrian refugees, internally displaced persons and returnees as part of our ongoing research. The picture that emerges from these discussions is one of increasing vulnerability, poverty and desperation in displacement.

The vast majority of displaced Syrians have remained in the region. More than six million people are displaced inside Syria, while Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have jointly absorbed another five million refugees. Six humanitarian NGOs recently described the increasingly dire situation of Syrian refugees in the Middle East in a report "Dangerous Ground."

Refugees face severe challenges in securing decent standards of living in Syria's neighboring countries. Over half of Syrian refugees in the region live below the poverty line. Barriers to accessing health and education services are leaving an alarming 43% of refugee children out of school.

Many Syrians feel alienated from their host communities and looked down upon. Experiences of discrimination are common. As a refugee in Lebanon explained during a group discussion: "Most people are blaming Syrians for the increases in rents, lack of jobs and other things. I am suffering, because people are not accepting us."

The desire to return home grew stronger.

The harsh conditions of day-to-day life and the constant feeling of being a burden on host societies makes many refugees lose hope that their situation will improve. As a result, some are convinced that they would be better off returning to Syria. As a refugee in Turkey explained: "Life here is very difficult. I am a teacher but I haven't found a job. Those problems will push me back into Syria despite war conditions."

It is clear from our research among returnees that it is these harsh living conditions that are starting to push Syrians to return. In a recent study, we asked 400 returnees about their life in displacement, their decision to return and their situation upon return.

Economic hardship and discrimination in countries of asylum were among the primary reasons for refugees to return: 61% of returnees report the lack of secure income as the main reason to return, while 43% could no longer cope with the humiliation and discrimination in asylum countries. The latter trend was particularly strong among those returning from Lebanon, where some refugees also indicated feeling increasingly unsafe.

As refugees feel less at home in Syria's neighboring countries, the desire to return to their homes in Syria grew stronger. Seventy-one percent of refugees indicated that homesickness was a strong pull factor to return.

Importantly, neighboring countries' closed border policies created another motivation to return. Syrians can no longer reunite with their family members by bringing them into relative safety in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. Return, then, became the only way to keep their family together. Nearly 40% of refugee returnees had returned for this purpose.

Refugees who face severe obstacles finding decent work or starting a business may expect to have a better chance of securing an income in Syria. Indeed, for one third of returnees, this assumption partially informed their decision to return. Yet, when asked about their situation upon return, most returnees experienced difficulties in finding jobs in their home areas. Nearly half of those who returned were not able to secure employment.

As a result, the vast majority of returnees told us that they had to reduce their daily meals to make ends meet. To feed their families, almost half of returnees had to borrow money to cover basic living expenses. Further, the destruction of basic infrastructure and services created major obstacles to returnees' access to healthcare, education, water and electricity.

Most returnees did not find safety back in their home areas. Forty percent of refugee returnees were concerned about the safety of their families, because of ongoing violence, crime and the presence of land mines in their area.

Syria's ongoing conflict and insecurity, limited livelihood opportunities and lack of access to services – including water, health, education and electricity – all are yet to be addressed in order for refugees to have the option to return home in safety and dignity.

However, precarious living conditions in refugee hosting countries in the region are pushing refugees to return to Syria, placing their lives at risk. In order to minimize these push factors for refugees to return, the international community should fulfill humanitarian and development funding commitments. This includes pledges made at the London and Brussels conferences. In addition, pledges for resettlement or other forms of humanitarian admissions for vulnerable refugees must be increased.

Syrians must be enabled to build a dignified future outside of their home country until a sustainable resolution of the conflict is reached.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
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