Washington DC, February 5, 2019— A new World Bank report analyzes the voluntary return of 103,090 Syrian refugees to determine the key factors that influenced their decisions. This group of refugees, who returned to Syria between 2015 and 2018, were compared with millions of others in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon who chose not to return, for a comprehensive, evidence-based study of the return patterns of Syrian refugees.
The new report, The Mobility of Displaced Syrians: An Economic and Social Analysis, draws on the large amounts of data on Syrian refugees collected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in addition to its own surveys. The results were compared with other refugee situations around the globe, ranging from Iraqi refugees in pre-war Syria to Somali refugees in Kenya. This analytical approach allowed for a better understanding of the complex set of factors that refugees must navigate as they consider a return home.
“Refugees pay a high price for their security,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Regional Director for the Mashreq. “While taking refuge provides an escape from imminent harm, it can come at the cost of long term impoverishment. Despite the best efforts of host countries and the international community, school enrollment of Syrian refugee children is lower in host countries than in Syria, trapping entire generations in permanent disadvantage.”
The report finds that security conditions in Syria are the single greatest factor determining the potential return of Syrian refugees. Access to basic services in Syria, such as health and education, along with the conditions of basic infrastructure are also important drivers of returns. Using simulations based on the extensive analysis of data, the report estimates the impact of these key factors. An additional 10 percent of the refugee population studied by the report could return to Syria, if the rate of security improvement doubled and the restoration of services tripled within the next five years. This is in addition to those who would return in the absence of these improvements. Unlike these two factors in Syria, however, the impacts of conditions in refugee hosting countries are much more complex.
“One result that surprised us, was that harsh conditions in exile do not always translate into increased returns,” said Harun Onder, World Bank Senior Economist and lead author of the report. “For example, the data shows that Syrian refugees who have access to an extra meal per day are 15 percent more likely to return to Syria. This in line with the complexity we saw in our study of international experience. Whereas poverty was a major driver of Iraqi refugees’ return from pre-conflict Syria, in Liberia it was high-income refugees that were the first to venture home.”
The report comes at a time in which the prospects for further de-escalation in Syria have improved, but the perceptions of insecurity that have so far restricted returns prevail. Investing in service restoration in Syria could help, but simulations show that this would be twice as effective with improved security, which includes the end of arbitrary detainment, forced conscription, and other violations of human and property rights.
Finally, the report emphasizes that voluntary returns under the right conditions improve welfare. However, policies with a sole focus on maximizing returns can reduce welfare if conditions are not right. A more broad-based approach aimed at improving conditions for Syrians and host communities would create the space for voluntary decisions to return while improving the well-being of all parties.