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.
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 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 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.