Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

Syrian refugees in Jordan reluctant to return home

Insecurity at home is the reason most Syrian refugees in Jordan are staying put

Syrian refugees at Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq. Reuters
Syrian refugees at Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq. Reuters

Despite a warming of ties and reopening of borders between Jordan and Syria, security concerns and an absence of a political resolution to the civil war have prevented all but a few thousand Syrian refugees from returning home, raising questions over how long the community will remain in the economically struggling kingdom.

Just 9,195 Syrian refugees returned home from Jordan since the border reopened on October 15, according to statistics released by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) this week.

Jordanian officials have been hoping for a large-scale return of its 1.2 million Syrian refugees, though it says it will not force them to leave. “We encourage the return of refugees to Syria as quickly as possible,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said earlier this month.

To this end, Amman has been working behind the scenes to accelerate Damascus’ reintegration into the Arab world and international community and to advance a political settlement in Syria to create conditions conducive to repatriation.

But those conditions, according to many Syrian refugees, have not materialised.

Um Suheib, a 42-year-old mother of three, tuts in dismissal when asked about returning home.

“It is impossible,” she says at the door of her rented three room east Amman apartment, which she shares with 15 members of her extended family. “There is no security, we are on government blacklists and we have nobody left in Syria.

“Our home is flattened and our family is scattered across the world and killed. Return to what?”

Young Syrian men in Amman told The National that they fear forced military conscription should they return.

“I am 24-years-old, I am not in university and I am in good health,” says Omar, a Damascene working in a west Amman fast-food restaurant. “If I step foot into Syria, I am stepping into the army.”

Nearly a third of Syrians in Jordan say they will never return home, according to a survey conducted last November by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, an Amman-based research centre. A further 24 per cent said they would probably not go back. Less than a third of Syrians said they will probably go back, while just 14 per cent were “very determined” to return.

A lack of security was the most common reason for not returning, followed by instability and fears of conscription. One in 10 Syrians said their homes were destroyed and they no longer have relatives or a community awaiting their return.

Despite their concerns, nearly two thirds of the survey respondents agreed that “Syrian refugees should return to Syria.”

Fewer than six per cent said that “being settled in Jordan” was a reason for not returning.

This leads analysts to conclude it is conditions in Syria – rather than the presence of aid and housing in Jordan – that is preventing more Syrians from returning home.

“The data shows that although they overwhelmingly feel welcomed in Jordan, the majority of Syrians would prefer to return home given the right security and political conditions,” says Fares Braizat, CEO of the company that carried out the survey. “There needs to be further steps to reassure them that returns are possible.”

A separate survey conducted by UNHCR Jordan in late 2018 indicated that only eight per cent of polled refugees planned to return to Syria within the next 12 months, a three per cent increase from a similar survey carried out in July. Some 78 per cent said they did not plan to return home within the next year, while 14 per cent did not know.

That survey showed that two thirds of Syrians hoped to return home one day, while a quarter said they had no hope of going back.

As with those surveyed by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, the vast majority of refugees polled by UNHCR cited a lack of security as their primary concern in Syria, while more than half also expressed worry over a lack of housing.

The bulk of Syrians leaving Jordan have returned to Latakia, Deraa and Damascus; areas less affected by the war, where refugees have often been able to maintain their homes and businesses from afar.

Abdullah Mohammed, a 50-year-old from Deraa, is preparing to return home with his family after an initial visit in December. He says his vegetable farm and small fleet of trucks are operational again after six years thanks to the reopening of the border in October.

“We are already doing business with Jordan again and we are connected to the world,” said Mr Mohammed. “Syria is no longer isolated. It is time to return home.”

But even among Syrians planning to return, over half have fears about insecurity and a lack of work opportunities, according to the UN survey.

UNHCR maintains that present conditions in Syria are not conducive to return.

In an interview with The National last week, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi emphasised that returns should be voluntary, noting that ongoing conflict, and a lack of reconstruction and legal protections are preventing largescale returns to Syria.

For now, many Syrian refugees in Jordan say they will wait and see.

“If there is an amnesty and a peace settlement, and we can return to our normal lives in Syria without fear, why not?” said Omar, the restaurant worker.

“It is better to rebuild your homeland than to live in prosperity in a land that is not your own.”

Updated: January 30, 2019 07:40 PM

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