Aya* does not mince words. “I have hope that I’ll go back to Syria,” said the 37-year-old refugee from Aleppo. But the mother of five, who now lives in Istanbul along with her husband and children, says she can’t return to Syria now: “Only if the regime changes can we go back.”
In Gaziantep, Dima, a 47-year-old mother of four, has a slightly different outlook. “My house in Syria is demolished. My home address is near the Al-Zahra area, and it was one of the first houses to be bombed,” said the Syrian refugee who fled her home in Aleppo province three years ago. She said she now hopes to apply for Turkish citizenship. “Nothing remains for me in Syria,” she said.
The Syrian conflict enters its eighth year on Thursday, and decision makers in refugee-hosting countries, including Germany, Jordan and Lebanon, are increasingly discussing the possibility of large-scale Syrian returns. These calls come amid warnings from leading humanitarian agencies that it is too soon, and too unsafe, to return: An estimated 1,000 children have been injured or killed in the first two months of 2018, according to UNICEF.
That being said, some refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) have already gone back, and aid organizations are warning that hundreds of thousands of others are at risk of being forced to return in 2018.
But what do refugees themselves think about their future and potential return?
New research from Seefar, an international social enterprise, found that Syrian refugees living in Turkey have a highly individualized decision-making process – the question of whether or not to return is a highly personal one.
Placing refugees in simple categories – for example, “Those who want to return when Syria is safe” – fails to capture how refugees themselves define the necessary conditions for their return. Based on focus group discussions with dozens of refugees in Gaziantep and Istanbul, including Aya and Dima, the new report revealed that refugees harbor highly diverse understandings of what “safe return” actually means in practice.
Conditions for Return
While many Syrian refugees are quick to point to “safety” or “security” as central to their willingness to return, Seefar’s research shows that they often use these words in vastly different ways. For some, the end of fighting, or a general sense of security in the country, means they will be able to return home safely. Thus, the cessation of hostilities is the key to their return.
In fact, some refugees in Turkey said that current conditions in certain areas would allow them to return immediately – all they need is a bit of money and transportation. This is not a widely shared view among respondents, something that regional actors should take into consideration.
While Aya agrees that returning to Syria would only be possible if the conflict ended, she cannot see an acceptable end without the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. Dozens of refugees interviewed by Seefar said that they could not return to Syria until Assad is no longer in power, and many hold him personally responsible for the conflict.
For many, as for Aya, this barrier to return comes from a real fear for their personal safety. The regime arrested Aya’s husband, and she said she cannot return to Syria until those who persecuted her family no longer pose a threat to her individual safety.
“They tortured him, even though he didn’t have anything to do with politics. Since Assad is still there, we can’t return back to Syria,” she said. She did not give details on the reason for her husband’s arrest.
For others, like Khaled, a former teacher from the village of Qantara in Jarablus, near the Turkish border, regime change alone is not sufficient to make Syria safe for return. The creation of safe zones under the control of different groups means there will continue to be conflict, and political solutions are not enough, he said.
“The moment that Trump became the president, he said that he wanted to create a safe area. This isn’t a solution! The creation of the safe zones under the control of certain regions means that war will continue,” said Khaled, who left Syria in 2012.
Expanding on his general belief in “safety,” Khaled says he defines security as the removal of different armed groups. While he says the Assad regime is “a problem,” he notes that he is equally concerned with the so-called Islamic State group and Shi’a militia groups. Regime change may permit Aya to return home, but for Khaled, safety can only be obtained when all groups lay down their weapons.
Without a Syria that is “stable” – meaning long-term guarantees of safety – Khaled says he will continue to work as a volunteer teacher in Gaziantep.
These are just three perspectives; other refugees defined “security” in terms of better living conditions and development. One refugee woman in Gaziantep even said that the entire “country needs to be reformed” and rebuilt, noting the long road ahead before Syria would be in any physical condition to receive returnees.
Onward Migration and Resettlement
Returning or remaining, however, are not the only two options for refugees. Onward migration or resettlement (particularly in European countries) is widely perceived to be popular among Syrian refugees. But across multiple focus groups, few refugees had a positive view of onward migration or resettlement.
“I have friends who traveled through very difficult ways to Europe, and they gave us advice that we shouldn’t migrate,” said Aya, explaining that the risks of the journey were a deterrent.
Others were dissuaded by fears of life in a new, unfamiliar country and being far away from family or friends. The desire for eventual return to Syria is another explanation: Khaled and his family even avoided moving within Turkey – choosing to stay in Gaziantep rather than relocating to Istanbul – to facilitate their return to Syria whenever conditions allow.
These widely held negative views of onward migration offer powerful insight into how, despite a sense of crisis in Europe, many Syrians prefer to remain in the region. “Only five respondents were interested in migration or resettlement, with Canada and Germany mentioned as preferred destinations,” according to Seefar’s report.
For policymakers, it is important to recognize the diversity of voices among Syrian refugees. Some may be more able to return as the conflict changes, while others may take years or never be able to return to Syria. Meanwhile, perceptions of migration may have started to shift among Syrian refugees. Policy conversations on durable solutions for refugees must be flexible and account for all three possible solutions: return for some, but local integration and resettlement for those who feel unable to safely return.
*All names have been changed for security reasons.