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publication February 6, 2019

The Mobility of Displaced Syrians: An Economic and Social Analysis


Artwork credit: Solara Shiha


This report identifies key factors weighing on Syrian refugees contemplating a return home and analyzes how changing conditions in Syria might affect their decisions. It analyzes the voluntary return of 103,090 Syrian refugees to determine the key factors that influenced their decisions.

This group of refugees, who returned between 2015 and 2018, were compared with millions of others in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon who chose not to return by using various statistical techniques including machine-learning. The results were compared with other refugee situations around the globe, ranging from Iraqi refugees in pre-war Syria, to the Balkans, and Somali refugees in Kenya.

This analytical approach allowed for a better understanding of the complex set factors that refugees must navigate as they consider a return home. Building on this understanding and recognizing that returns that have taken place so far may not be the same as future returns, the report also employs simulations to generate scenarios of security and service restoration in Syria and how that would influence spontaneous returns.

Overall, the extensive analysis of data, review of international experience, and forward-looking simulations allowed for a comprehensive, evidence-based study of the return patterns of Syrian refugees. 

Key Messages

- Conditions faced by Syrians inside and outside Syria

1. Despite the generosity of host countries and the best efforts of the international community, the sheer scale and pace of the conflict in Syria have resulted in persistent hardships for Syrians both inside and outside Syria.

2. Taking refuge is not always a “win-win” situation (e.g., both better security and better economic opportunities) for Syrian refugees. On the contrary, access to security is often counterbalanced by a decrease in the quality of life. 

3. The security and quality of life tradeoff often takes an intergenerational form: short-term security comes at the expense of lower human capital accumulation that will disproportionately affect the future of Syrian children and youth. 

- Returns so far

4. Conditions on the ground affect both the scale and composition of returns in different ways. With persistent concerns regarding insecurity in Syria, the return of Syrian refugees has been infrequent and selective so far, which does not represent a large-scale return. 

5. Conditions in Syria have rather predictable and monotonous effects on the return of refugees, e.g., better security and service access in Syria consistently increase returns. 

6. Host country conditions affect returns in more complex ways. A lower quality of life in exile does not always increase returns; e.g., more education increases return at primary education level but not at secondary or tertiary education levels.

- Return simulations – looking forward

7. The international community has a diversified policy toolkit, including subsidies (return assistance), transfers, and service restoration in Syria, to help refugees, their hosts, and Syrians in Syria.  

8. This policy toolkit should ideally be used in an adaptive manner. “Corner solutions” (e.g., using all resources through one tool only) are inefficient. The optimal allocation of resources across these tools are shaped by the conditions on the ground.  

9. Insecurity in Syria is a major deterrent to return and it reduces the effectiveness of service restoration efforts. Thus, with improvements in security, which would include the cessation of arbitrary detainment, forced conscription, and other violations of human and property rights, more resources can effectively be allocated to restoring services. 

10. Maximizing refugee returns at any cost is a poorly defined policy target. Maximizing the well-being of refugees, their hosts, and Syrians in Syria should be considered.

*The Mobility of Displaced Syrians: An Economic and Social Analysis (Full Report in PDF Format)

Reference Information:

*“The Mobility of Displaced Syrians: An Economic and Social Analysis” was prepared by a World Bank Team led by Harun Onder (TTL, Senior Economist, WB) and Haneen Sayed (Co-TTL, Lead Operations Officer, WB) and comprising more than 70 experts in Bank’s focus areas.

The report benefited from collaboration with UNHCR and financial support from the governments of Canada and Germany as well as from State and Peacebuilding Fund (SPF) and MENA Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MENA MDTF).