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We Must Start the Conversation About Return of Syrian Refugees Now

If millions of displaced Syrians are to go home one day, we need to understand refugees’ conditions for returning, attitudes to justice and the possibility of coexistence, say the authors of an International Center for Transitional Justice study of refugees in Lebanon.

Written by Rim El Gantri, Karim El Mufti Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Ahmed al meraikhi in lebanon
A Syrian girl at a refugee camp in the Gazzi region of the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut in Lebanon, on March 21, 2017. Ratib Al Safadi/Anadolu Agency

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, discussions of what happens after it ends often invite criticisms of naivete or premature optimism.

Yet there can be no sustainable peace in Syria without a simultaneous and comprehensive plan to facilitate the return of more than 6 million internally displaced people and more than 5 million Syrian refugees to their lands and property. The displacement crisis is inextricably linked to ending the conflict itself.

With this in mind, we carried out in-depth interviews with nearly 40 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, as well as groups working with them, to learn their views on the possibility of peaceful coexistence in postwar Syria one day.

While most of the people we interviewed desperately want to return to Syria some day, they all agreed on these paramount conditions of return: security, safety and dignity.

War is undignified. It destroys societies, it destroys families, it kills people and dismembers communities, and it causes everything that dignifies a person to collapse around them. When people are tortured, arrested, humiliated or persecuted, they feel stripped of their dignity. When your community is attacked, it can feel like your dignity has been taken. If you are a patriotic Syrian, seeing your country devastated socially and economically and its cultural heritage largely destroyed brings more humiliation.

These feelings are compounded among refugees and others displaced by war. You lose everything overnight and you run for safety to a country that may not welcome you, where you have no ability to move freely, where you are trapped, where policies are completely inadequate to your situation. You cannot go home. You cannot go anywhere. You do not have a right to work and yet you have to pay your bills.

“We lost our kindness, our neighbors, our lives, our lifestyle,” a woman living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley told us. “We have been deprived of our society, our extended family … One would drown his neighbor to save himself,” said a man who had come from Syria’s Daraya.

Still, the refugees we spoke to identified very practical conditions for dignified return. They need safety and infrastructure, roads, bridges, physical reconstruction. They need healthcare facilities and shops, and help de-mining their fields in order to grow crops again. They also need education and schools for young people.

Many talked of an urgent need for psychosocial support, especially those who had lost loved ones. The Syrian people, including children, are enduring enormous trauma. Others said that family reunification was a condition of returning, because some of their relatives are in Lebanon, while others are scattered throughout Europe, and their parents may be back in Syria.

Young refugees have one primary concern: They do not want to become a lost generation. Many of them have learned new skills in Lebanon that may be of crucial importance to one day rebuilding their country. Still, the traumas they have suffered and the disruption of their education, development and lives must be addressed immediately and comprehensively.

Syria’s displacement crisis also brings together two concepts that don’t always coexist easily – humanitarian intervention and the pursuit of justice.

For some refugees, the pursuit of justice starts and ends with the image of putting perpetrators behind bars. It is hard to disagree that President Bashar al-Assad and thousands of others who took part in the deliberate carnage perpetrated against civilians must face a reckoning of this sort.

But for many of the displaced, justice also means the chance to get back what was taken from them – homes, land and livelihoods. It means the chance to track down the missing or to find humane ways of recognizing that many tens of thousands of people may sadly never be found.

Those we interviewed held varied views on whether criminal justice for mass atrocities will ever be possible. Many did not see accountability as an option: “I don’t know what justice means. I haven’t seen it in either Syria or Lebanon,” stressed a 39-year-old man from the Aleppo suburbs. A man from Homs said, “There is no justice. Each party will want to achieve justice from his point of view.” Yet others insisted that accountability is a key precondition for any hope of future peaceful coexistence.

There is also the issue of reconciliation, which is such a charged concept in the Syrian context that many of the refugees we interviewed understand it only as the “loser agreeing to the terms of the winner.” So, instead, we used the term “coexistence,” a concept essential to the way of life in the Levant, where many different communities coexist, and which implies a measure of reconciliation. Again, all those we spoke to insisted that there was one key condition to the possibility of peaceful coexistence: upholding the dignity of those returning.

It is clear that facilitating the return of Syria’s displaced will be enormously complex and its scale may far exceed similar examples from recent history, including Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Everything of course depends first on the end to the conflict. However, the uniqueness of the Syrian context will be a decisive factor in shaping this undertaking.

For it to have any chance of success, consultations with displaced Syrians must play a central role in driving the plans for the return of refugees, as well as the peace talks themselves.

Read the full report “Not Without Dignity: Views of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon on Displacement, Conditions of Return, and Coexistence” from the International Center for Transitional Justice.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of News Deeply.

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