Tag Archives syrian refugees

‘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.


More legal flexibility needed for Syrian refugees living in Jordan and elsewhere by Dina Zbeidy

Jordan is home to some 700,000 Syrian refugees who are trying to adapt to Jordanian laws and customs, including the legal requirement and social expectation to register a marriage. Dina Zbeidy argues that while the precarious legal and economic status of Syrian refugees in Jordan plays a part in preventing them from registering their marriages, development organizations can play an important role by shifting their focus to addressing structural obstacles Syrian refugees face and by challenging the problematic legal system.

Marriage registration is mandatory in many countries, including Jordan, and its importance is inscribed in various international conventions.[1] The non-registration of a marriage has a number of grave consequences in Jordan specifically, since, here, lineage and nationality pass through the father. Therefore, marriage registration is needed in order for children born in Jordan to receive a legal identity and gain access to various rights and services. Indeed, one of the main concerns among organizations and officials revolve around the fact that non-registration can lead to children lacking a recognized national identity[2].

In Jordan, development organizations and Jordanian officials debate the negative implications of the non-registration of marriages among Syrian refugees. However, they often miss the point and their argumentations diverge from the concerns and daily experiences of Syrians themselves. In 2016, I conducted over ten months of fieldwork as part of my PhD research on marriage practices among Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Jordan and the work of development organizations on the topic. I noticed that Syrian refugees were often concerned with navigating the legal and social obstacles they faced due to their recent displacement. While most of my respondents were aware of the legal obligation to contract a marriage through court, they often did not have the means to do so, and were worried about the negative image Jordanians held towards Syrians because of their different marriage practices.

The fact that some Syrian couples in Jordan do not register their marriages stems from a variety of factors. One factor is the different legal system they were used to in Syria. While according to Syrian law marriages should also be concluded through the court, in practice most Syrians concluded what they term a zawaj sheikh, that is a marriage concluded by a sheikh and fulfills the Islamic requirements of a marriage, but is not officially registered at court. The couple usually registered the marriage at a later stage, often after the birth of their first child.

In addition, many Syrians in Jordan faced difficulties obtaining the necessary legal documents. Especially young Syrian men were reluctant to seek the assistance of the Syrian embassy as they were wanted in their country for military service. Moreover, for the majority of Syrians who struggled financially, the high costs in documentation and transportation formed another obstacle.[3]

While most Syrians were aware of the requirement to register a marriage, the obstacles they faced did not lead them to refrain from getting married. Having lost loved ones due to war, and away from family members dispersed around the region, marriage provided them with one way through which they could build a new life in displacement. Respondents stressed the desire to start their own families and make a home for themselves amidst their precarious conditions. Therefore Syrians have tried to find ways to circumvent the legal obstacles to ensure that they can still get married.

Structural obstacles must be addressed

Syrian refugees thus face a number of challenges when it comes to complying with Jordanian laws on marriage registrations. But what development organizations and Jordanian officials fail to highlight is the problematic legal system itself. Interventions of organizations focus on spreading awareness around the legal requirement of marriage registration through workshops and explaining the consequences of failing to do so. By doing this, they place the responsibility for change on the shoulders of refugees themselves instead of addressing the structural obstacles refugees face, or calling for Jordanian officials to facilitate marriage registration for refugees who lack the means to do so according to the current regulations.

Moreover, harsh laws related to the recognition of newborn infants pending marriage registration status are particularly problematic. Bearing children outside of an official marriage is still a taboo issue on which organizations choose not to publicly campaign, leaving the patriarchal legal system unchallenged. In order to alleviate the burden placed on refugees, it is necessary to place the focus for finding a solution on the Jordanian legal system itself. This can be done both by taking into account the specific obstacles refugees face due to their displacement, and by addressing women’s vulnerable legal status in Jordan when not officially married.

Dina Zbeidy will hold a seminar about the Marriage Registration in Jordan at the ISS on November 26.

[1] See for example Article 3 of the UN General Assembly Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, and Article 16.9 of the Convention of Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

[2]In my interviews with employees of Jordanian development organizations, the scale and impact of unregistered marriages became apparent. I was told about a case of a Syrian couple living in Jordan who had concluded  a marriage according to Syrian custom. When the wife went to the hospital to deliver her baby, she was asked by hospital staff for her marriage contract. When she was unable to provide them with one, social services took her newborn baby away and the husband was arrested. While the law discusses the status of an ‘illegitimate child’, it does not mention the removal of a child. Nevertheless, this practice seems to be a regular occurrence.

[3] As mentioned by my respondents and according to the Registering Rights Report (2015).

Nimri, Nadeen. 2017, February 28. To Give Birth to a Child outside of Wedlock in Jordan. Raseef22 (Arabic).
Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). 2015, October 15. Registering Rights: Syrian Refugees and the Documentation of Births, Marriages, and Deaths in Jordan. Cambridge: IHRC, Harvard Law School
Part of the arguments and ethnographic data in this piece were discussed and published in the following article:
Zbeidy, Dina. 2018. “Marriage Registration among Palestinians and Syrians in Jordan: Debating Identity, Society, and Displacement.” Sociology of Islam6(3), 359-380.

Image Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development on Flickr. The image was cropped.

dina-zbeidy.jpgAbout the author:

Dina Zbeidy is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Her PhD research focuses on marriage practices and discourses among civil society and refugee communities in Jordan. She has over eight years of professional experience in non-profit work in Palestine and the Netherlands. She currently teaches social sciences and conducts research on topics related to law and justice at the Leiden University of Applied Sciences.