This explainer is the second in a TIMEP series regarding the issue of refugee return in the Syrian context, with an emphasis on current conditions inside Syria for returning Syrians. The return of Syrian refugees is seen as a key strategy for the Assad regime to signal the end of the Syrian conflict and normalize its relations with surrounding host countries, despite ongoing concerns about the rapidly deteriorating socioeconomic conditions inside the country and the tenability of safe and secure return in the current political climate and in the backdrop of a global pandemic. Efforts to return refugees were most recently demonstrated by an international conference hosted by Russian officials in Damascus in late 2020 on refugee returns. The conference alleged Syria’s readiness to start the conversation on large-scale return of Syrians living abroad, in neighboring countries and Europe, in an attempt to bring Syrians back to rebuild the country, revive its economy, and signal a return to political normalcy.
According to the UNHCR, a total of 250,555 Syrian refugees have returned to Syria since 2016. Returns have decreased by 77 percent in the last year, from a peak of 94,971 returns in 2019 to 21,618 this year, likely due to movement restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of returns between 2016 and 2020 were from Turkey (37 percent of total returnees), followed by Lebanon (24 percent), Jordan (22 percent), Iraq (17 percent), and Egypt (.01 percent). While many displaced Syrians admit that they would like to return to Syria someday, the conditions for their return remain challenging, and for some, impossible. In this explainer, we provide an overview of the conditions in Syria for returnees—namely security concerns, ongoing political repression, and a deteriorating economy—all compounded by the rise of COVID-19 and other obstacles affecting the ability of Syrians to voluntarily and safely return to Syria.
Potential for voluntary refugee return to Syria
According to a 2019 UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, 75.2 percent of respondents hoped to return to Syria one day. Syrian refugees across various host countries have cited a strong desire to return not only to their physical homes, but also to a culture in which they are socially comfortable. A survey of Syrian refugees in Turkey found that older refugees have a stronger inclination to want to return to Syria. Younger Syrians can more easily integrate, learn a second language, and find a new job in their host countries; older refugees however are more likely to have a stronger emotional attachment to home and prefer their familiarity with Syria’s social and cultural lifestyle. The survey also found that married Syrian refugees have a preference to return because they seek to preserve the Syrian identity of their children. Among those who demonstrated the strongest will to return were Syrian refugees who continued to have close family ties in Syria. Syrians with more economic incentives—including those who own property or real estate in Syria—are slightly more likely to want to return to Syria as opposed to those without holdings or whose property have been seized.
Additionally, and as demonstrated in the first explainer, poor economic conditions and chronically high unemployment rates in surrounding host countries have also incentivized return to Syria. These difficult conditions have led to increased pressure on host governments, and particularly Lebanon, to publicly demonstrate their readiness to return Syrian refugees. These conditions, as well as the lack of legal protection mechanisms for refugees, have led to increased discrimination, racism, and mistreatment of Syrian refugees. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has had demonstrable consequences on host country economies, has also led Syrian refugees to consider premature repatriation to Syria.
Current deterrents for refugee return to Syria
Threats of detention, military conscription, and forced disappearances
The volatile security situation inside Syria, exacerbated by the ongoing presence of the Assad regime, continues to be a point of concern for the majority of Syrian refugees. Nearly 80 percent of Syrian refugees surveyed by the Syrian Association of Citizen’s Dignity (SACD) noted that security conditions were one of the main points of concern when considering return, and over 82 percent suggested an overhaul of the existing security apparatus in Syria. Fear of arbitrary arrests and detention upon or after arrival were also noted as significant concerns for those surveyed in the SACD report, particularly among those who had family or friends who had been detained or imprisoned by the Syrian regime. Conditions inside Syrian prisons are dismal, with well-documented accounts of torture, severe neglect, and mass deaths, especially for those deemed as dissidents of the Assad regime as well as returnees.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, at least 1,916 returnees have been arrested by security forces, among which 784 remain detained and 15 have died under torture, as of August 2019. Some of these returnees, among them women, were reportedly subject to forced military conscription and repeated detainments. Military conscription, which is compulsory under Syrian law, was another point of concern for potential returnees, particularly for young men. Over 84 percent of those surveyed stated that military conscription into the Syrian regime’s military is another strong deterrent from returning to Syria.
Another pointed concern is the lack of adherence by the Syrian regime to reconciliation agreements in former rebel-held areas, such as Daraa and Eastern Ghouta in the southern part of the country. Forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and a pointed lack of effort by the Syrian regime to reinstate basic services in these areas have set a poor precedent for former dissidents of Assad’s rule, including those who fled the country for asylum.
Poor economic conditions
In addition to security and political concerns, the country’s dire economic situation and the economic exploitation of returnees represent major barriers to return. The Syrian economy has been declining since the start of the conflict in 2011. Even after the regime regained control over large areas of Syria, it remained unable to improve the country’s economy. In November 2019, the Syrian pound started to witness a significant decline following the eruption of protests in Lebanon and the restrictions on withdrawing deposits and funds from Lebanese banks. The exchange rate of the dollar against the lira ranged from about 600–950 SYP by the end of 2019 and reached all times high of 3,000 SYP in June 2020 before stabilizing at 2,700 SYP in the past few months. The recent economic downturn has contributed to an inflation in food prices, intermittent access to electricity and water, and severe fuel shortages across the country. In the current context, estimates indicatethat over 83 percent of Syrians are currently living under the poverty line, which demonstrate less than ideal conditions for large-scale return.
Rising poverty and unemployment rates
Furthermore, the regime’s loss of oil fields in the east of the country—some of which are under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and some of which have fallen into disrepair—is another important factor contributing to the country’s economic crisis .The decrease in oil production from about 300,000 barrels per day to about 20,000 barrels per day in 2019, along with a halt in oil deliveries to the Syrian regime from allies like Iran due to U.S. sanctions, has caused a fuel crisis. The crisis resulted in long lines of cars at gas stations and of people waiting to buy gas and diesel for heating and cooking. The government also decided to raise the prices of oil derivatives, leading to a great increase in the prices of transportation and food. This had a significant impact on low-income families, many of whom were forced to rely on debts or money sent by family members outside Syria. The vast majority of Syria’s population are already under the poverty line and more than 50 percent of the population are unemployed. Many Syrians as result are unable to meet the basic needs of their families and depend on aid provided by various organizations. Many unemployed degree holders had to flee Syria to countries of asylum in search of job opportunities to help their families, which led to the decline of skilled and educated workers in Syria’s workforce.
Apart from Syria’s rising unemployment rates, employment in the public sector is unlikely for returning refugees; state employment is indeed not secure for those who sought asylum in other countries, as they are often deemed critics of the regime. In October, the Syrian Council of Ministers ordered the Suwaida Health Directorate to dismiss a hospital employee accused of attending an anti-regime protest. That same month, the Syrian government terminated the employment of 21 teachers throughout Syria for refusing to join the military.
Exploitations of returnees
Returnees also face grave systematic exploitations by the Syrian regime. In some cities, returnees were asked to pay years’ worth of taxes and utility bills. In July, the regime signed a decree requiring Syrians entering the country to exchange $100 or other foreign currencies for Syrian pounds at the official rate—causing Syrians to lose 60 percent of their money value. This placed an additional burden on Syrians wanting to return from Lebanon; since Lebanon does not allow Syrians to return once they have crossed the Lebanese side of the border, dozens of returnees, who were unable to pay the $100 entry fee, found themselves stuck between the Syrian and Lebanese crossings. A 17-year-old Syrian girl who was stranded at the boarder collapsed and died in September. Two months later, Syrian PM Hussein Arnous announced that returnees would be permitted to enter into Syria without exchanging $100, though the exchange policy remained.
Other arbitrary exploitations include Law No. 19/ 2012, which allows authorities to freeze property of individuals charged with offenses related to financing or committing terrorist acts—an accusation often extended to anyone who participated in anti-regime activities. In 2019 alone, the Ministry of Finance issued decisions for the precautionary seizures of the property and funds of 10,315 Syrians. There were also 40,000 cases of precautionary seizures of Syrians properties in 2017 and 30,000 cases in 2016. Without being able to sell and invest in property and business expenditures or access savings upon return, Syrian returnees will not be able to sustain themselves in the country and will potentially face bankruptcy and other legal obstacles to establishing a future in Syria.
Limited availability of services
Social and economic conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate rapidly, leaving a large majority of the Syrian population with limited access to basic services, including health care, education, food, and housing. The World Food Programme (WFP) reported that nearly half of the Syrian population is currently food insecure, a 1.4 million increase from 2019. Food prices increased significantly during COVID-19, particularly during the early months of the pandemic following lockdowns imposed by the Syrian government. However, humanitarian groups—particularly those operating in government-controlled areas—are closely monitored and regulated by the Syrian government and have limited access in rural areas, areas with ongoing fighting, and former opposition-controlled areas.
The current conditions, including the government constraints on humanitarian groups, demonstrate a deficit in the state’s ability to provide social support to returning nationals, as well as the ability to establish essential services and rebuild infrastructure. A sobering example of what refugee returns to former opposition territories would look like is demonstrated by Deraa province, whose population continues to face arbitrary arrests and forced conscription despite reconciliation agreements in 2018. In these areas, the Syrian government has also failed to re-establish services or scale-up reconstruction in areas that were largely destroyed during military offensives by the Syrian government and its allies.
Ongoing spread of COVID-19
Furthermore, increasing cases of COVID-19 across Syria pose major risks to civilian populations as well as the healthcare workforce and broader health system. Official reports indicate that Syria has 7,973 confirmed cases and 422 resulting deaths from COVID-19, but estimates indicate that only 1.25 percent of deaths due to COVID-19 are accounted for by the Syrian Ministry of Health. Other key parts of Syria for returnees include the northwest part of the country, which shares a border with Turkey, where over 13,000 positive cases have been reported. The spread of the virus will continue to place severe limitations on the movement of potential returnees across lines and across borders, particularly individuals returning from Jordan and Lebanon. It will also continue to threaten the safety of civilians and the sustainability of an already debilitated health system, particularly given limited actions by the Syrian government to mitigate the outbreak.