An Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugees: A Conversation with Roger Duthie


As Syria’s brutal and unrelenting conflict enters its ninth year, Syrians continue to seek refuge outside the country in staggering numbers. According to UNHCR, over 5.6 million people have left Syria since 2011, of whom more than 900,000 now live in neighboring Lebanon and close to 700,000 in Jordan. For many of these refugees, any sort of a negotiated peace would mean contemplating a return to a fragile homeland.

 ICTJ’s latest report, An Uncertain Homecoming: Views of Syrian Refugees in Jordan on Return, Justice, and Coexistence, documents the concerns, expectations, and priorities of some of these men, women, and children related to the prospects of returning home and future coexistence and justice in Syria. We sat down with Roger Duthie, ICTJ’s senior research expert, to reflect on the study’s findings and the outlook for Syrian refugees if and when the conflict ends.

This study on Syrian refugees in Jordan is the last installment in a series of three qualitative studies based on interviews with refugees conducted by ICTJ since 2017. The first study was based on interviews with Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and the second was a study based on interviews with refugees from the Central African Republic living in Chad and Cameroon.  In all three studies, refugees were asked about the conditions under which they would consider returning home. What were the responses like? Were there similarities and differences across contexts?

Roger Duthie: When speaking about the potential for return, refugees in all three cases were concerned more than anything else about security and economic issues, which is not surprising. And in none of the three cases did they feel conditions allowed for them to return at the time they were interviewed. People feared for their own and their families’ safety, and they distrusted both state institutions and non-state armed groups. People also worried about the damage done to or occupation of their homes, the destruction of infrastructure, and their ability to find jobs. In all three cases, refugees expressed a wide range of views on justice, from skepticism that any justice was possible to claims for specific forms of accountability, reparation, truth, and reform.

But at the same time, in each study a particular theme emerged to characterize the views of those interviewed. For Muslim Central Africans in CAR, it was the need for strong messages of inclusion from the state. For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, it was the need for the restoration of dignity. For Syrian refugees in Jordan, what became clear was the extent of the uncertainty surrounding return because of the deep and complicated divisions between groups and the challenges to be faced in overcoming these divisions.

How would you describe the study’s methodology?

Roger Duthie: This study uses the same qualitative methodology as the other two studies. It is based on in-depth interviews with 121 refugees living throughout the northern governorates of Jordan, including in formal and informal camp settings. Our researchers sat down with each refugee separately for between one and four hours, sometimes more than once, and spoke to them about their experiences of conflict and displacement, as well as their views on the potential for coexistence and justice. As with the previous two studies, we did not begin with specific questions about notions such as “transitional justice” or “reconciliation,” but instead used a more open-ended approach.

Not wanting to lead the conversations in the direction of particular ideas or proposals, the researchers asked people what had happened to them, what would be necessary for them to return home, and what it would take to rebuild relationships with others. This methodology allows us to spotlight the stories of the refugees in their own words, stories that demonstrate the complicated nature of these relationships and the immense challenges Syrians will face in repairing their country’s social fabric after the war ends.

The refugees in Jordan interviewed in the report did not seem especially hopeful about chances for justice and meaningful accountability for crimes in a post-conflict Syria. How did their responses square with responses from the Central African refugees?

Roger Duthie: In all three studies, refugees held a range of views about the need for and feasibility of justice. While some people did call for and expect specific forms of justice, such as the truth about what happened to the disappeared, there was also a significant amount of skepticism that it would ever happen. Common across the studies was a deep distrust of state institutions. Refugees from CAR expressed distrust in their dysfunctional and corrupt national justice system and tended to prefer an international entity to investigate and prosecute crimes committed during the conflict.

Refugees in Jordan similarly pointed to a lack of trust in government institutions, but also, in contrast, doubted the international community’s commitment to justice, saying that if it wanted to hold the Syrian regime accountable it would have done so already. Another interesting difference was that Central African refugees commonly talked about compensation for material losses as a personal entitlement, while few Syrians in Jordan mentioned or were aware of the possibility of receiving compensation, although many did say that restoring or rebuilding damaged property was crucial for return. This suggested to us the need for awareness raising about refugee rights to reparation.

The Syrian refugees in Jordan, as well as in Lebanon, were mostly members of Syria’s majority Muslim Sunni group. In contrast, the Central African refugees were all members of religious and ethnic minorities. What can be said about refugees’ perspectives on inclusion and identity?

Roger Duthie: In any context of violent conflict and displacement, it is likely that the reasons refugees fled their homes, the nature of their experiences while in exile, and the difficulties they face upon return will be shaped to a certain extent by their identities. For the CAR study, we focused on members of the minority Muslim and Peuhl communities because, despite living in CAR for generations, they are usually considered foreigners by other Central Africans, meaning they would be more likely than other groups to experience difficulties in returning home. Refugees in that case articulated how prospects of local inclusion depended on “top-down” messaging coming from the state affirming their rights and citizenship.

For this study on Syrian refugees in Jordan, most of the interviewees were Sunni Muslims, the majority group in Syria, but what happens when they return will still likely depend on local dynamics. Those going back to places such as Daraa and Homs, for example, will need to live among or close to minority sects such as Alawite and Shi’a, which are generally perceived to be pro-government and hostile to Sunnis. For refugees from Swayda, which is home to Syria’s largest Druze population, however, their concerns also had to do with relations between Sunnis and Druze. Other minorities, such as Ismaelites, Palestinians, and Circassians, also experienced violence and exile in particular ways. This means that, as the report recommends, there is a need for “bottom-up” approaches that respond to local needs and dynamics. The point isn’t that in one context you need top-down approaches and in another you need bottom-up ones, but that the different cases illustrate the importance of each element in different ways.

A number of Syrian refugees described gruesome acts of violence and brutality that they experienced or witnessed. What impact does violence have on future justice and the return and reintegration of refugees? What sorts of psychosocial support are needed?

Roger Duthie: Refugees commonly describe the harms and trauma of experiencing, witnessing, and in some cases participating in violence and abuses, but I would highlight two examples from the Jordan study. First, the stories of young people revealed the traumas they had suffered as children. One youth, for example, described that witnessing the aftermath of a murder that took his childhood away gave him a “dead heart.” Another said that when he saw his cousin get shot, he felt hatred of the other side for the first time. While in Jordan, refugee parents talked about the harassment, bullying, and discrimination that their children faced in school.

Second, many women who had lost husbands and children said they would not want to return to Syria even after the war, not only because their homes were destroyed and they lacked sources of income, but also because of the psychological distress of returning to places where they had experienced trauma. They talked about the reopening of wounds, the memories of losing loved ones becoming overwhelming, were they to go back. In the report, these are among the reasons we recommend that return and reconciliation efforts include methods to address the long-term emotional needs of refugees and psychological support to children and youth.

Men and women refugees often described very different experiences of the conflict, displacement, and the life in Jordan. What was most striking about women’s experiences in comparison with their male counterparts?

Roger Duthie: Men and women refugees have experienced both conflict and displacement in particular ways, which shapes their views on return as well. While everyone suffered from indiscriminate attacks, shelling, and bombings, men were more likely to be the primary targets of abuses such as detention, torture, enforced disappearance, and forced conscription. These are also what they fear upon return. While women were also victims of direct violence, including sexual violence, women were more likely to be dealing with the loss of loved ones, the responsibility of protecting their children, and new and difficult family situations.

In Jordan, women refugees related experiences of gender-based violence and domestic violence as well as intimidation and exploitation, due in part to the absence of protection in both the private and public sphere. Men in the refugee camps facing limited employment opportunities said they felt their role as the main provider for their families was disappearing. And while women struggled with the challenges of entering the work force for the first time, some also spoke about not wanting to give up the agency that this shift in traditional gender roles had given them.


The full report, An Uncertain Homecoming: Views of Syrian Refugees in Jordan on Return, Justice, and Coexistence, and its recommendations are available here.

PHOTO: A young Syrian refugee secures ropes to the outside of his family’s tent in al-Za’atari camp to reinforce it against the approaching winter’s harsh winds and weather. (DFID/UNCHR/Sokol).