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‘I will not return unless the regime of Assad falls’ by Nawras Al Husein and Natascha Wagner

The award-winning documentary film ‘For Sama’ tells the story of a mother who filmed her life in war-torn Aleppo for her newborn, Sama. The mother documented her daughter’s first moments, but also the context in which they tried to live, including the regular bombing of the hospital, the blood-covered victims, dead people and, by and by, the destruction of the city. A recent study by ISS researcher Natascha Wagner and Nawras Al Husein highlighting the voices, fears and perceptions of Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey and Germany shows that decisions by refugees to return to their country of origin are complex; the general assumption that Syrian refugees wish to return to Syria after the war has ended should not be taken as a given. The research shows the necessity of engaging with refugees to inform decisions on their future.


With the recent spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe, leading to lockdowns and causing thousands of deaths, our attention has been diverted from other ongoing crises. June 20 is International Refugee Day, and amidst the many other crises we find ourselves in, we are experiencing one of the biggest refugee crises of our time. In March 2020, the Syrian civil war entered into its 10th year. While the war is still ongoing, the future of Syrian refugees—victims of the civil war forced to flee their home country and temporarily residing in neighbouring countries and beyond—is already heavily debated.

The Syrian civil war has resulted in more than 5.9 million internally displaced people and more than 5.6 million refugees as of 1 July 2019. The majority of Syrian refugees are concentrated in the countries that border Syria, particularly Turkey, but a significant number are also hosted in EU countries, mainly Germany. Turkey hosts almost two-thirds of the Syrian refugees, while Germany had 568,785 officially registered Syrian asylum applicants by December 2019, making it the host country with the largest Syrian refugee population in Europe.

For the UN, a number of European countries hosting refugees, as well as the Syrian government, the return of Syrian refugees to their country of origin is the desired solution. The unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees over the last years has resulted in political, social, and economic challenges for host countries, with social tension rising in the wake of the mass migration in 2015. The discourse of the alleged threat that refugees pose to host communities is used by right-wing populist parties to win votes. Thus, host governments are under pressure to consider return migration scenarios given the political challenges they experience. But do Syrian refugees feel the same?

Inclusivity for informed and data-driven decision-making

The voices of Syrian refugees have seldom entered the debate on refugee policy. Therefore, in 2018, we interviewed 577 Syrian refugees in Germany (241) and Turkey (336) and explored whether they consider return migration an option, and, if so, when. We wanted to highlight the needs, aspirations, and agency of Syrian refugees in deciding upon their future. Understanding decision-making about return migration, particularly in the case of refugees, is not an easy task. Yet, for this very reason it is important to provide informed and data-driven information from the refugees themselves to host-country policy-makers.

Some of the main considerations or views informing the decision to return to Syria include:

Regime Al-Assad. We found that of the interviewed refugees in Turkey, 76% want to go back home. Among the Syrian refugees in Germany, only 55% wanted to go back. The current political regime under Al-Assad plays an important role concerning their desire to return to Syria. For the majority of refugees, an end to the current regime is needed to ensure their eventual return. For the German group, the likelihood of intended return increases by 21% if the Al-Assad regime is to be discontinued. Given that Al-Assad is still in power and the Western world is to a large extent inactively watching the conflict, host countries should not count on a speedy return of Syrian refugees, at least not voluntarily.

Civil and Political Rights. We also inquired whether other institutional preferences affected intentions to return. While refugees appreciate the democratic values of freedom of speech and belief, the data suggest that the existence of these liberties does not feed into the return migration decision in either of the host countries. Thus, simply imposing these values on the Syrian regime is unlikely to trigger mass return movements.

On-the-spot Information. Our research further analyzed whether exposure to positive or negative information regarding return migration impacted refugees’ intentions to return. The negative news item shown to respondents presented the latest facts about numerous challenges faced by Syrian refugees who returned home from Lebanon. The positive news item consisted of a leaflet with encouraging information on support for returnees, including relevant links and addresses in case of interest. We found no systematic impact on the decision to migrate back. This suggests that host governments cannot expect (rapid) information disseminated by refugee agencies—even if it is positive and provides support—to impact refugees’ decision making about their return.

Infographic Syrian Refugees returning home
The infographic can be downloaded here: https://www.iss.nl/en/news/return-migration-syria-voices-refugees-germany-and-turkey

Moving beyond repatriation agendas

 If large-scale return migration is desired, we should try to better understand the preferences and concerns of the refugees themselves. We would do well to listen to the voices of the refugees themselves, since they have very clear ideas about what would make returning worth the effort. The situation in Syria continues to be unstable and it remains to be seen whether the country can find a way back to peace in the near future.

As our research shows, the end of the war and even political change would not be enough for all refugees to consider returning. Consequently, host countries should already start investing in the integration of those refugees who stay on. Taking the stance that the presence of the Syrian refugees is entirely temporary is not what the data suggest. The integration of the Syrian refugees within the host countries, regardless of how long they intend to stay, is an opportunity that can also support return migration, as it will give visibility to the refugees and their concerns.


Source: This blog is based on Nawras Al Husein & Natascha Wagner, “Determinants of intended return migration among refugees: A comparison of Syrian refugees staying in Germany and Turkey“, June 2020.


About the authors:

Nawras Al HuseinNawras Al Husein is an ISS alumnus and currently works for CARE Netherlands as project manager and cash advisor. He is a humanitarian and development practitioner who has been managing complex emergency responses in Syria and Turkey for the last 8 years as well as early recovery and development projects in Syria and Yemen. His most recent research focuses on identifying the determinants of intended return migration among Syrian refugees hosted in Germany and Turkey.

 

Natascha WagnerNatascha Wagner is associate professor of Development Economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (Netherlands). Her research interests lie in international economics/ development, ICT for development and health. A recurring theme in her research is gender and female empowerment as well as social exclusion. Natascha has published articles in, among others, Health Economics, Economics of Education Review, Journal of Development Studies and World Development.

 


Title Image Credit: ekvidi on Flickr. The image has been cropped.


 

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The question of democracy in environmental politics: The Green Road Project in Turkey by Melek Mutioglu Ozkesen

Road construction is usually presented as a major condition for development, but the question is: development for who and whose land is being intruded for the construction of the road? In Turkey, these questions were prominently raised by social movements and civil society organizations when the government launched its Green Road Project in 2013. It is promoted by the state authorities for making the Black Sea region accessible to the incoming tourists that would arguably improve the economic conditions of the people living in the region. Six years later, the road has almost been completed, and this post can only pay homage to the brave and gradual field attempts of social movements to stop this project.


The Green Road Project is a road project with a length of 2645 kilometers that will connect the highlands of the Artvin, Bayburt, Giresun, Gümüshane, Ordu, Rize, Samsun and Trabzon provinces in the northern part of Turkey. The target of the Green Road Project is declared as ‘the completion of not only the Green Road Project to provide a significant brand value to the region in the tourism sector and link the highlands to each other, but also the acceleration of social progress that will be ensured through the resulting economic development.’[1] However, it also means the loss of livelihoods, increase in construction, rent, and environmental damage for the locals living in the region.

The Green Road, introduced by state officials as a regional development project, is justified by a discourse of serving ‘the people’ and providing local and national development through infrastructural modernization, which could result in a tourism boom and attract foreign investment.  It led however to the adverse reactions of highland residents. Non-governmental organizations involved in the protest argue that the process has been carried out without consulting the local people at any moment during the policy making stages. Various organizations such as TEMA, the Fırtına Initiative, ‘Brotherhood of the Rivers/Highlands’, and ‘Black Sea in Revolt’ monitored the project very closely and struggled against it. They tried to stop the construction for a long time until eleven locals were detained by the gendarme and 24 locals were prosecuted on the charges of violating the freedom of work.

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Mother Havva, depicted in the title image, who has become the symbol of the social opposition in the region, says:

‘Let them see if there is anything green in this road. Those highlands are ruined for whom? Highlands should be for our children, for our animals. We have no place to go. We kept our hometown alive by protecting our highlands and forests. The state exists because we exist, because this folk exists. Neither would [exist] these police, this gendarme, this judge, this government, this district governor for that matter. They exist as long as we exist. We are people with our land, our green, our highland!’[2]

Apparently, Mother Havva and the government officials do not refer to the same group as ‘the people’. This contested use of ‘the people’ makes us question which people this project serves?  Which people will gain and lose by it? Mother Havva, while justifying her resistance against the project, protests that the state acts against – their peoples’ rule and their will. Perceiving ‘the people’ as the founding component of the state, she also questions who the state is? The Turkish government identifies its uncontested executive actions as democracy for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since its rise to power in 2002, and has been trying to legitimate itself as the representative of the ‘will of the people’.  On the other side, ‘the people’ identify themselves with their environment and lands, and consider this project as a threat for their livelihoods. This contested use of the term ‘the people’ by the locals and the officials sheds light on different projects of democracy endorsed by the two sides. While the locals have been struggling for their representation in the ongoing projects happening on their living space and refuse to leave absolute control to the mercy of the political authority, the government officials have been legitimizing their actions through conducting their representational legitimacy in the country.

In the Green Road Project, participatory action seems out of the agenda in an ever suspending process which excludes the opposing locals from any stage of policy making itself. Even when the locals mobilized to struggle/protest against the project, they were threatened, detained and were usually marginalized through various discourses such as that of ‘pasture occupiers’, settled in the region without legal permission and against local development. In this context one can say that the Green Road Project is one clear example that asks for the necessity of participatory democracy in environmental politics in Turkey in order to avoid the threats and disappearance of the livelihoods of the rural people in the region.

[1] DOKAP (2014). Doğu Karadeniz Projesi (DOKAP) Eylem Planı 2014-2018. T.C. Kalkınma Bakanlığı.

[2] BirGün. (2015) Havva ananın isyanı: Kimdir devlet? Devlet bizim sayemizde devlettir.


Image Credits: Demiroren News Agency


MelekAbout the author:

Melek Mutioglu Ozkesen is a visiting PhD researcher in the Political Ecology Research Group at the ISS. She comes from the Ankara University in Turkey.