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.