The conflict in Syria has created a devastating, decade-long humanitarian crisis with ripple effects felt throughout the world. It has been described as one of the most brutal wars in recent history, with widespread use of torture, enforced disappearances, chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and enduring human rights violations. However, despite the absence of a viable and durable political solution to the conflict, humanitarian discourse has begun to focus on the question of return. Some host countries have also begun espousing the narrative that Syria is safe, leading to policies that would result in the revocation of asylum status and protections for displaced Syrians.
This report focuses on the voices, experiences, and opinions of Syrians to establish whether the conditions in Syria are suitable for facilitating the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). By providing original research and data analysis on the safety, security, and economic conditions within each of the four primary control areas in Syria [Government of Syria (GoS), Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), and the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)], it provides NGOs and policymakers with the contextual information required to make well-informed decisions around the issue of return.
The research used a mixed-methods approach and relied on primary data, which included 700 surveys with residents, IDPs, and returnees, supplemented by 26 community interviews and five expert interviews to fill the remaining data gaps. The report also includes an in-depth literature review.
The research found that out of all returnees surveyed, at least 41% self-reported that they did not return voluntarily, either due to being forced back to Syria or pressured by authorities in their host area. Returnees were pushed to return by a variety of factors including their poor living situation and unstable security in host areas, and the inability to continue studying.
Returnees also reported numerous experiences with violence over the past 12 months, with clear differences in frequency between control areas. At the whole-of-Syria level, 11% of returnees reported they or a loved one experienced physical violence or harm in their place of residence over the past year, with an additional 7% preferring not to answer, perhaps indicating a fear to speak openly about this issue. Reports surfaced of returnees being beaten by armed groups for unknown reasons, personal disputes, arbitrary arrest by regime forces, and arrests during COVID-19 curfews. Arbitrary arrest and detention were not only reported in GoS areas; our survey found that 17% of returnees across all areas reported that they or a loved one had faced it in the past year.
On feelings of safety (psychosocial), the majority of returnees in GoS areas (57%) reported feeling unsafe or only somewhat safe walking in their neighborhood during the day; this number was lower in SIG/SSG territories (37%) and AANES territories (20%). In general, returnees from within Syria reported feeling less safe—whether at home or within their neighborhood—compared to returnees from abroad.
As for material safety, nearly one-quarter of returnees in GoS areas who owned housing, land, or property (HLP) in the area have been unable to reclaim it, with many returnees preferring not to provide details. Most reported their houses have been destroyed or are uninhabitable; a sizable minority reported that their property has been overtaken by armed groups.
The deterioration of living conditions and basic services was also well-documented throughout Syria. In GoS areas, 69% of residents said they have not had adequate and regular access to electricity or heating over the past year (a mere 4% said they did); 54% said they did not have regular and adequate access to safe drinking water, 29% did not have regular access to health services (including pharmacies), and 13% did not have regular access to education. Similar conditions were highlighted in SIG-, SSG-, and AANES-controlled territories, with an emphasis on the poor purchasing power of their currency, unaffordable rent combined with rising costs of living and a shortage of jobs, frequent shortages and poor quality of food, lack of electricity and water, shortages and high prices of medication, and poor education services.
As for legal safety, struggles were widespread across all control areas. In terms of documentation, roughly one-third of returnees said that they or a loved one have experienced at least some difficulty in obtaining official documents for children born outside Syria, foreign spouses, or others. This number was significantly higher for returnees in GoS areas, especially those who returned from within Syria. Specific difficulties were experienced in obtaining passports, registering children born outside of Syria, and registering marriages. Moreover, it was found that justice and law enforcement channels were highly insufficient, with few returnees (only 14%) confirming the presence of channels to help them address violations suffered in their communities; one-quarter of returnees stated that these channels are only somewhat available. Broken down by control area, in GoS areas these channels were virtually non-existent (3%); comparative figures stood at 20% in SIG/SSG territories, and 21% in AANES territories.
At the whole-of-Syria level, regrets about return were split, with just over half of returnees feeling confident about their decision to return, and the other half regretting it entirely or expressing doubts and uncertainties. While most IDPs said they have a desire to return to their place of origin prior to the conflict, a substantially lower share said that they have a plan in place to do so. Furthermore, findings suggest that for most, plans are rather loose, as three out of four do not know yet when they will attempt the journey. Meanwhile, while most IDPs would like to return home, the opposite is true for residents in GoS areas, who despite remaining in their place of origin have expressed a desire to leave it behind. Indeed, 58% of residents surveyed in GoS areas expressed a desire to leave their homes, and of those who felt comfortable to answer this question (and many did not), 75% reported having a plan in place to do so. Nearly one-third of these said they plan to leave within the next 6 months, and all of them said they would prefer to go to a different country rather than to another part of Syria. This highlights how the deteriorating conditions in Syria are unable to support the basic needs of not only IDPs and returnees, but also the non-displaced native population.
The 22 Protection Thresholds established by the UN are currently the main indicators being used to justify a move into large-scale and facilitated returns. This report found that a total of 16 thresholds are currently considered “not met.” Four other thresholds can be considered “partially met,” while the remaining two thresholds are too unclear to make a well-informed determination on their status and therefore require further research.
In other words, none of the thresholds were considered sufficiently met. Based on this determination, conditions are currently not suitable enough to allow the facilitated return of Syrian refugees.