Most refugees won’t return to Syria until conditions are right — here's how to help

Most refugees won’t return to Syria until conditions are right — here's how to help
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It seems logical: As the brutal Syrian civil war appears to wind down, the estimated five million Syrians who fled the violence in their homeland will soon be asked to return home. Neighboring countries with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees can shed the burden of hosting foreign populations. Syrian refugees, who overwhelmingly say they want to return to their homeland, begin the transition. A rational scenario perhaps, but there’s one catch: most refugees won’t return until conditions in Syria are right.

The sooner U.S. policy makers and countries hosting Syrian refugees plan for this reality, the better. 

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I recently returned from Lebanon, where I met with Syrian refugees, Lebanese officials and UN refugee workers. The refugees I met fell into four groups:

Some will return to Syria only if there’s regime change. These refugees want a broad political settlement, President Assad gone, the Syrian Constitution rewritten and American guarantees of their safety and freedom upon their return. We cannot and should not, dismiss these dreams, however unlikely.

Other refugees will accept something less. Their return is tied to an end to fighting in their communities and an assurance of basic security for them and their families. They want the Syrian government to pledge that men will not be drafted into the Syrian military when they return, or be forced to engage in whatever fighting remains. They want a reliable process to recover their property if others occupy it. 

A smaller group has begun to return voluntarily, despite the fact that UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, believes conditions in Syria are not yet conducive to a return in “safety and dignity.”

Reports from inside Syria will determine the pace of voluntary repatriation; extended Syrian families and friends are in close contact with each other via WhatsApp.

Others won’t be allowed to return at all. The Syrian government will deny them re-entry based on perceived political affiliations or their homes will be gone, occupied by largely Shia families settling in Syria as part of a forced demographic transition.

Lebanon, hosting more than one million Syrian refugee, which is equivalent to 25 percent of their population, welcomed them at first. Now some senior ministers want them to go home. They’re treated like out-of-town guests who have over-stayed their welcome.

They are blamed for driving down wages and taxing Lebanon’s fragile infrastructure and health care system. Perhaps most significantly, many Lebanese fear that the Syrian refugees will stay for generations, as more than 400,000 Palestinians did after 1948. With most refugees being Sunnis, this potential outcome threatens to further complicate Lebanon’s complex confessional political system.

The Syrian refugees are no happier. They are living in limbo, afraid to leave settlements for fear of being jailed or deported and without access to jobs in the formal economy. Vital humanitarian assistance provided by UNHCR and the World Food Programme, supported generously by the American taxpayers, has made a crucial difference. UNHCR has also been an important intermediary between Syrian refugees and the communities that are hosting them.

What can U.S. policy makers and the global communities do to help these refugees and a country like Lebanon that has supported these refugees beyond their capacity?

First, while Russia and the U.S. have divided sharply over the Syrian Civil War, we need to find common ground together to help those Syrian refugees who choose to return to do so successfully. We must work with regional players, as challenging as that will be, in support of the UN’s efforts to establish minimum standards for refugee returns, including security guarantees, limitations on military conscription, ensuring property restitution and UNHCR access to monitor and assist returning refugees.

Second, the U.S. and other donor countries need to plan and fund multi-year financial and political commitments to support the UN’s humanitarian aid to the refugees in Lebanon and surrounding countries. The wealthy countries of the Arab world, which have provided only token financial support for the refugees, must also invest more.

Third, recognizing the complexities of U.S. policy towards Lebanon, including the strong political power of Hezbollah, we must find ways to assist the government and people of

Lebanon, through development assistance and financing from international financial institutions. Their continued generosity in hosting refugees despite their own political and economic challenges deserves recognition and support. Lebanon must not be abandoned at this critical moment in the region’s history.

The Syrian civil war has been a tragedy. The U.S. and the global community must ensure that this devastation is not further compounded by prematurely abandoning millions of Syrian refugees and the Lebanese people who offered them sanctuary.

Peter Yeo is  senior vice president of the United Nations Foundation.