Will Displaced Syrians Ever Return? History Says No.
Across the Middle East and Europe, millions of uprooted Syrians are making decisions about their future. Unless the international community takes their motives and calculations seriously, ill-conceived humanitarian policies risk exacerbating, rather than preventing, future political instability. Many displaced Syrians experience tremendous suffering and yearn for an end to the conflict; the international community, and in particular Syria’s neighbor states, shoulders an incredible burden to care for the displaced. Yet when we address displacement through temporary arrangements, such as refugee camps, we make the implicit assumption that once the conflict ends most Syrians will choose to return to their original homes. History shows that this assumption is not realistic. We should expect the civil war to permanently change Syrian demographics, in particular by accelerating the process of urbanization, and policymakers need to plan postwar reconstruction for a country that will look dramatically different than it did in 2011. Failure to plan for a growing urban population will likely generate exactly those conditions — poverty, slums, unemployment, marginalization, and restive youth bulges — that caused the civil war to break out in the first place.
Syria witnessed a wave of political demonstrations against the Assad regime in the spring of 2011 that gradually morphed into a civil war. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of how destructive this civil war has been to the Syrian social fabric is its extraordinary level of forced displacement. Before the civil war Syria had a population of just above 21 million people, according to World Bank data. Of those, as we detail below, as many as 14 million people no longer reside in their original homes. This rate of civilian displacement in a civil war may be unprecedented in post-1945 history.
The Syrian population has scattered far and wide. More than 900,000 Syrians applied for asylum in the European Union between 2014 and 2017 alone, most of whom made the expensive and dangerous journey on their own. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf claim to have more than 2.5 million Syrian residents, although the true number is likely less than a million. North America hosts the largest share of the roughly 100,000 Syrian refugees outside Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, who have arrived through U.N. resettlement, family reunification, or other means. However, most Syrians have not traveled as far. Almost 5.7 million Syrians are currently registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency as refugees in five regional neighbor states: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. The true number may be higher as some refugees prefer not to register their presence with local or international authorities. Finally, about 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced persons, according to United Nations Refugee Agency estimates.
Refugees who are displaced outside Syria must eventually decide whether to return to the country at all; inside Syria, all displaced persons must choose whether to return to their original homes or settle elsewhere in the country. So, if the Syrian civil war came to a decisive conclusion in the near future, would displaced Syrians return to their original homes? Judging by historical precedent, we should expect that most of them will not. Let us consider each group mentioned above in turn.
The main question concerns the refugees who are living in the immediate vicinity of Syria. Of course, most Syrian refugees in the region still struggle to access housing, jobs, education, and other public services; a large share likely nurtures hopes and dreams of one day returning to their old homes. Yet many have had some degree of success in re-establishing their lives elsewhere, and if the conflict in Syria ends they will have to take a hard look at how their lives in postwar Syria would compare to their present circumstances. In Turkey, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees at over 3.6 million individuals, the situation is very fluid. One stated objective of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent military intervention into northeast Syria is to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees in that area. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey struggle with unemployment and poverty, and 82 percent of Turks want refugees to return to their own country. On the other hand, many Syrians have managed to create a new life in Turkey. Some have been able to access formal work permits and secure gainful employment. Others have successfully started small businesses, mostly in the service sector, and Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey now employ 7 percent of their refugee compatriots. Turkey is also a much wealthier country than Syria: In 2007, the last year of available World Bank data, Syria had a GDP per capita of only $2,033 compared to $9,712 for Turkey in the same year. For many Syrian refugees across the region returning to Syria will not be a foregone conclusion when the war ends. Furthermore, as the war has been going on since 2011 a generation of children is growing up with increasingly distant — or nonexistent — personal memories of Syria.
There are similar dilemmas among Syria’s other neighbors. In Jordan, the largest refugee camp — Zaatari — has effectively become a new suburb of Amman; while far from wealthy, it is a safe environment of mostly permanent buildings with reliable public services. Egypt, which does not share a land border with Syria, has predominantly attracted Syrians of means, including a sizeable number of business owners who have successfully relocated their businesses to the sprawling suburbs of New Cairo. Lebanon is an outlier as its government has a stated policy of making Syrian refugees return at the earliest possibility through self-deportation.
The history of refugee flows to Western Europe from the Global South shows that most migrants who are granted asylum and subsequently receive permanent residency or citizenship never return to their country of origin. Even in cases like that of Chile, where dissidents fled an authoritarian and repressive regime that eventually completed a successful transition to stable democracy and prosperity, data from Sweden show that the number of Chilean-born residents there has stayed roughly constant since the transition to democracy occurred in 1990. Between 1998 and 2009 2,180 people emigrated from Sweden to Chile, but the number of Chilean-born Swedish residents still rose from 26,842 to 28,378, most likely because of family reunification. In sum, once they settled in Sweden, most Chileans never returned to their country of birth. There is little reason to expect Syrians to have a higher propensity to return, or for Syria to be as attractive a destination (even in the medium to long term) as Chile is today.
A similar logic holds for Syrians in the Persian Gulf. While many Syrians have escaped the war by seeking employment — or joining employed family members — in the Gulf Arab states, the Syrian community in these countries was well established already before the civil war broke out, consists to a large degree of highly skilled immigrants with well-paid jobs, and even faces marginally more lenient local visa and residency rules today as a result of changes introduced in response to the civil war. There is little reason to expect this successful and prosperous group to relocate to postwar Syria in large numbers.
The refugees who return to Syria, as well as the 6.6 million internally displaced, face an additional question: whether to return to their place of origin or settle elsewhere within the country. When do internally displaced persons choose to return to their original homes after civil wars end?
Some evidence on this question comes from our recent study of postwar migration among Lebanese Christians displaced from the Mount Lebanon region in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Most of the displaced crowded into newly emerging Christian suburbs in East Beirut, and after the war ended in 1990 they faced the choice of whether to remain there or return to their original homes. By 2007, almost twenty years after the war ended, only about 21 percent of the displaced had returned to their old homes. This low figure is surprising as the displaced faced relatively favorable conditions to return home. After the war ended militias demobilized and there was little violence. The government respected prewar property rights, and even paid off wartime squatters to return Christian real estate to its original owners. It is far from clear that most displaced Syrians will ever face such favorable conditions, and even some reason to expect that they will not, as the regime is already aggressively modifying existing property laws.
Why did so few Christians return to Mount Lebanon? The key explanation is that this is a poor rural region historically dependent on agriculture with limited economic opportunities. When the war ended, its displaced Christians had spent almost a decade in Beirut where they had built new homes, careers, families, and communities. Most of them were content in their new surroundings and had both social and financial reasons to stay there, although many families do return to Mount Lebanon as regular visitors and to celebrate family events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Data from Norway suggest that this behavior is very common among refugees more generally: Many who hail from former conflict zones visit their old home countries during holidays, for recreational purposes, and to stay in touch with extended family members. In a sense, wartime displacement in Lebanon thus accelerated the ongoing demographic process of urbanization that had already started long before the war began. Urbanization is perhaps the most important demographic trend in the modern world, driven by powerful economic forces, and it is unrealistic to expect government policy to reverse this process.
The collection of previous experiences discussed here gives us some ability to judge what might happen if and when peace returns to Syria: Several million Syrians, a substantial share of the total population, will most likely choose to settle in new urban homes. Urbanization can be a wonderful social, economic, and even environmental transformation when it is regulated, well planned, and accompanied by effective policies addressing issues such as housing, transportation, infrastructure, sanitation, and waste management. However, in the last several decades, rapid and unregulated urbanization in poor countries of the Global South has been accompanied by the very opposite: slums and shantytowns, poverty and unemployment, traffic congestion, air and soil pollution, open sewers and dirty water, inadequate health services, and infectious disease. Across the Arab world, it was factors like these that generated the deep popular discontent that caused the “Arab Spring” revolutions of 2011 and eventually deteriorated into armed conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. Left unaddressed, these conditions will remain potential sources of political instability for post-conflict Syria.
Millions of Syrians have spent the last several years trying to build a new life outside of Syria and many of them will never return to their country of birth. Those who do return — perhaps because of a particularly compelling emotional connection to home, or because their host country makes their lives miserable — join several million internally displaced persons who also have to decide where and how to rebuild their lives. Historical experience and demographic trends suggest that they will mostly settle in large and growing cities. The most important policy implication of this argument is that as the international community begins to plan for postwar reconstruction in Syria, stakeholders should focus on rebuilding the major cities and expect displaced persons to flock there. Rebuilding cities involves creating the conditions for a dynamic private sector to generate economic growth but also planning housing and transportation policy with the expectation that the underlying population will grow after the war ends. Even in Western countries we have limited ability to rebuild rural regions in structural economic decline, or to reverse the out-migration that typically characterizes such areas. In Syria, it would be folly to pursue this quixotic quest, and naïve — if not outright dangerous — not to plan for its swelling cities to attract huge numbers of new residents.
Dr. Kara Ross Camarena is a postdoctoral researcher at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and an expert on the political economy of migration and refugees. Dr. Nils Hägerdal is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, an expert on armed conflicts in the Middle East, and a former affiliated researcher at the American University of Beirut. Both authors earned their PhD degrees at Harvard University.