An Uncertain Homecoming: Views of Syrian Refugees in Jordan on Return, Justice, and Coexistence

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Executive Summary

The protracted conflict in Syria continues to have serious and widespread ill effects on the lives of Syrian individuals, households, and communities. The majority of the Syrian population has been affected by the war, including women, children, and elderly, with millions forced to leave in search of protection and safety. Most have sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and beyond the region, in Europe and elsewhere.

After the war ends, drafting a new constitution, reconstruction efforts, reforming state institutions, holding elections, and mending the economy will be necessary but not sufficient to secure peace at the local and community levels. A peacebuilding process that fails to understand the political, sectarian, and social dynamics at the local level will also fail to promote peaceful coexistence or recreate social trust. A bottom-up approach to refugee return, justice, and coexistence that engages refugees, along with local civil society and communities, and that prioritizes listening to and addressing local needs is critical.

This study addresses the impact of the conflict and displacement on Syrian refugees in Jordan and the potential for justice and coexistence among Syrian communities. It aims to provide a better understanding of the experiences of Syrian refugees, including the harms and losses they have suffered, both individually and collectively, and their expectations, concerns, and priorities for potential durable solutions to their displacement, including the conditions that would facilitate return to their country and communities and help them to overcome divisions, rebuild relationships, and promote justice.

The concerns raised by the refugees interviewed for this study are pressing, particularly after Syrian government forces retook most of the country last year. The current regime, which is run by a feared and notorious security system, is winning the war militarily but has offered no acknowledgment of committing any crimes or abuses and therefore no reform agenda for its security institutions, making it extremely difficult—if not impossible—for refugees to return in the short term.

Despite the continued lack of security, some host countries have used the near-complete return of government control as a pretext to call for the large-scale return of refugees. Another unfortunate push factor is the dwindling funding provided for refugees by the international community, despite the position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that present conditions in Syria are not conducive for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity.

The focus on coexistence in this study shows the extent of the challenges, revealing the level of enmity resulting from injustice and the need to identify adequate steps for return that would allow refugees to feel safe in going back to their homes and living with members of community groups perceived to be hostile. The general sense among interviewees was that the change to government control has brought a situation of victor’s justice and that there will be no justice in Syria, particularly as long as the regime remains in power. This study demonstrates the need for forms of justice to be adopted nationally and internationally to address war crimes and crimes against humanity that have taken place in Syria.

Syrian refugees’ experiences and views are shaped in important ways by the geographical areas in Syria from where refugees came as well as their gender, age, and faith. Regarding return, interviewees from all areas expressed a common concern about safety and security, especially fears of arrest and detention, punitive or retaliatory acts, indiscriminate shelling, physical destruction, sectarian divisions, and perceived demographic changes.

Economic concerns included damage to or occupation of homes, broader destruction of the country’s physical infrastructure, and employment. Women interviewees, especially widows, expressed particular concern about going back to Syria without a house or source of income. Syrian legislation that allows the government to claim abandoned property was perceived by some as an effort to dissuade refugees from returning, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining documents proving ownership.

Refugees articulated skepticism about the possibility of achieving justice, although some spoke about the need for truth, reform, accountability, compensation, divine justice, and restitution of housing, land, and property. Views on future coexistence were more varied. For refugees from Daraa’s Bosra al-Sham and Homs, concerns centered around Sunni-Shi’a and Sunni-Alawite relations. Among refugees from Daraa and Swayda, concerns also had to do with relations between Sunni and Druze. In each case, their concerns were shaped by their perceptions of  the roles of different groups in the violence, political dynamics, and their personal experiences during displacement.

Children and youth spoke about safety and security, sectarian divisions, and especially the trauma caused by what they had seen and experienced. Men spoke about their fear of arrest, detention, torture, and forced conscription, in particular, while women related their traumas and larger responsibilities, family relationships, and economic challenges, as well as their resilience and new social roles.

Intersectional vulnerabilities among different social groups have also affected the views of refugees, revealing similar concerns about safety and security and distrust of the state or fear of armed opposition groups. For some, security meant removing the current regime and holding its members accountable or dismantling militias and armed groups. Some said they could not forgive those who supported the opposition, which they perceived as causing the destruction of the country.

Refugees’ experiences while in Jordan also have implications for return, justice, and coexistence. They have faced a range of challenges, including social and economic exclusion, tensions with host communities, and restrictive state polices. While these have left refugees vulnerable as a whole, particular groups are especially marginalized, and refugees in camps often feel trapped and excluded. At the same time, refugees both inside and outside of camps have shown their resilience in the face of hardship.

In efforts to find durable solutions, pursue justice, and foster coexistence, refugees must be part of the process. The following steps are therefore recommended:

Recommendations to Prevent Involuntary Returns

  • Jordan and other host countries must uphold the right to voluntary return and respect the principle of nonrefoulement.
  • Jordan and other host countries, the Syrian government, the international community, and civil society actors should provide refugees with sufficient information to make informed decisions about return.
  • The international community and donor states should continue to provide funds to support refugees’ basic needs in host countries.
  • Jordan, civil society, and the international community should recognize and help refugees to overcome the exclusion, vulnerability, and challenges they face in Jordan.
  • The international community should ensure that durable solutions to the Syrian crisis include resettlement and, where appropriate, integration.
  • Jordan and other host countries should facilitate the full engagement of Syrian and other civil society actors in host countries at all stages of discussion of return.
  • The international community and donors should support transitional justice processes that include the participation of refugee and diaspora communities.
  • The international community, donors, and host countries should support a public awareness campaign to educate Syrian refugees on their right to safe, voluntary, and dignified return.
  • Donors should support further research on the views, concerns, needs, and priorities of Syrian refugees on justice and coexistence.

Recommendations to Facilitate Refugees’ Voluntary Return to Syria

  • Host countries, the Syrian government, the international community, and civil society must place refugee needs and rights at the heart of any durable solution framework
  • Host countries, the Syrian government, the international community, and civil society must prioritize the safety and security of refugees when they return to Syria.
  • The Syrian government should allow the United Nations and other international organizations to be fully engaged in the process of refugee return.
  • The Syrian government should allow the United Nations and relevant international organizations to access returning refugees.
  • The Syrian government should provide returnees with services required to facilitate settlement, ensure a fair distribution of aid, and prioritize the reconstruction of schools, power, and water supplies.
  • The international community should exercise its pressure to reach a settlement that guarantees conditions that will facilitate voluntary, safe, and informed return.
  • All stakeholders involved in the political process must ensure that any political agreement or new constitution includes specific guarantees addressing the refugee crisis.
  • All stakeholders involved in the political process should ensure that any new constitution commits the future political leadership to a massive reform of state institutions.

Recommendations on Justice

  • The international community and parties to the political process should ensure that any political settlement does not grant impunity for the most egregious and systematic crimes.
  • The international community should sponsor a political settlement guaranteeing that information is provided to the families of the forcibly disappeared and abducted, mass graves are identified and protected, and mechanisms for DNA identification of victims are put in place.
  • Donors and international NGOs must work to raise awareness among refugees about their rights to compensation and restitution and other potential justice claims.
  • The Syrian government, the international community, and civil society actors should seek to facilitate restitution and restoration of housing, land, and property.

Recommendations on Coexistence

  • Donors and international organizations should support awareness programs on dignified coexistence targeting local communities and refugees.
  • The Syrian government should allow international and Syrian NGOs specialized in transitional justice and conflict resolution to access the areas where refugees are returning.
  • The Syrian government should set up measures to prevent situations where returning refugees find their homes occupied by others, particularly in demographically mixed areas.
  • States that have influence in Syria should support the creation of revenge-deterring mechanisms to avoid sectarian violence.
  • The international community should stress the need to engage local participatory structures to address local community needs.
  • The international community must adopt a bottom-up approach to peacebuilding by fully engaging local civil society organizations, refugees, and community leaders and members.
  • Donors, civil society, and the Syrian government should seek to provide reconciliation methods that address the long-term emotional needs of refugee communities.
  • The international community and civil society should support women in facing the economic, social, and psychological challenges related to displacement and help them in retaining the independence and access to new roles that were established during displacement.
  • The international community and civil society should help to address the trauma suffered by children and youth, provide psychosocial support and assistance in accessing education, and support civic education initiatives.