Syria’s refugees are losing hope of going home. They may be right

A new survey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan found that a majority don’t believe they will ever return home. That loss of hope will pose a significant challenge for the Middle East and Europe, as big as the war itself

Syrian refugees try to cross into Turkey from Syria, in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey. AP
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Will Syria's millions of refugees ever go home? As the civil war crawls into its seventh year, nobody, not the politicians around the world searching for a resolution, not the rebels on the ground, and certainly not the people of Syria, can have much hope that it will end soon.

The Syrian war remains the world's worst humanitarian crisis, a war that has raged longer than the Second World War. Even those tasked with bringing it to an end are losing hope. This week Carla del Ponte, one of the investigators on the UN's commission of inquiry on Syria, said she would quit because there was no political will from the Security Council. “We are powerless,” she told a film festival in Switzerland. “There is no justice for Syria.”

Worst of all, the refugees themselves are beginning to lose hope. Last week, a poll released as part of the Middle East-wide Arab Youth Survey found that more than half of young Syrian refugees believe they are unlikely to return home permanently. The survey that covered refugees in Jordan and Lebanon found that a majority (54 per cent) in the two countries believed they would never return home.

Those sentiments should jolt policymakers, in the region and beyond, out of a political stupor that has assumed for too many years that the Syrian war can be contained. The truth is, the war was always destined to be too big for Syria’s borders and to engulf the region, as it has done. The refugee crisis also is too big for one country or one region. If Syria’s refugees can’t go home and can’t live elsewhere – if they continue to exist in limbo – the repercussions in the Middle East and Europe will be as big as the war itself.


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The way the current political map of the Middle East and Europe is set up, the idea that Syria's refugees will never go home is impossible to imagine. The political settlement as it exists now is simply not able to deal with a crisis on this scale. Syria’s refugee population is the size of many countries: six million displaced within the country and at least five million outside of it, mainly in four Middle Eastern countries, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. If those five million – a population the same size as Denmark – cannot go home, it is difficult to see where else they can go.

That doesn't mean it is physically impossible. Depending on how you count the populations of Europe and the Middle East, there are around three-fourth of a billion people in dozens of countries. It is perfectly possible to resettle five million people. But politically it is impossible; the logistics of doing so in a world of hard borders, of religious divides, of still-simmering conflicts in both regions, of hardening political attitudes, of uneven economic development, and a lack of political imagination mean that, if Syria’s refugees don’t go home, they will probably sit in limbo for some years.

That would be the worst of all outcomes. The Middle East has already suffered half a century of uncertainty and conflict because of the failure to find a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian refugees already number more than six million worldwide, with many millions across the Middle East – many in the same countries that are now hosting Syrians. Another half century of Syrians as refugees in the region should fill the Middle East with horror. Because there are few things worse than a population stuck in limbo.

So many young men and women would, of course, be easy prey for extreme ideologies. But more than that, a system that allowed so many millions to languish without a solution would, de facto, be a broken system. Neither the Middle East nor Europe, both already facing severe crises to their territorial integrity, can afford another crisis on the scale of the Palestinian one. The loss of so many millions of life chances would be a testament of failure.

Is there an answer? The Syrian refugee crisis should – and may still – provoke a fundamental rethink of how borders and nations operate in the 21st century. The crisis may yet bring about innovative change in the way that individuals can move around the world. At the same time, the severity of the crisis ought to promote new ways of thinking about the Syrian civil war and its aftermath. Syrian refugees are already thinking things once considered unthinkable; the rest of us may have to follow.

Asked what was the most critical factor that would allow them to return home, the refugees surveyed said, overwhelmingly (47 per cent), that the war had to end. ISIL leaving Syria was a distant second (25 per cent), and the long-standing demand of the international community, that Bashar Al Assad step aside, was practically an afterthought, at seven per cent.

The fact is the Assad regime is winning the war. Mainly because the West and the Middle East failed to act swiftly or decisively enough, the only group that is capable of steering Syria towards a stalemate is the regime. The decision three weeks ago by the White House to end CIA support to the Syrian rebels was a declaration of defeat. The US under Barack Obama was unwilling to wage a real battle for Damascus; under Donald Trump, that unwillingness has become a surrender.

There now seems no plausible way for regime change in Syria to happen. Bashar Al Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future. That will mean, almost inevitably, a long-term insurgency, expanded support for terror groups and expanded power and prestige for Russia, Iran and Hizbollah. What some Syrians appear to be saying is that these outcomes may be better than millions of people living in limbo. That is a hard message to hear after all these years, but it is a message worth listening to.

What Syria's refugees appear to be saying is that, absent any alternative, they would rather go home to a country ruled by Bashar Al Assad. The world is, in any case, sleepwalking to that reality.