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Support essential to Syrian refugees’ voluntary return

Mar 10,2019 - Last updated at Mar 10,2019

Refugee return to Syria is not a new phenomenon. Rather, Syrian refugees have returned throughout the crisis; between 2016 and 2018, over 23,500 refugees hosted in Jordan have chosen to go back to Syria.

However, since the reopening of the border crossing at Jaber in October last year, more Syrian refugees have started their journey home, over 12,000 as of the end of February. While a notable increase, this constitutes only 2 per cent of the 670,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan.

Returning home after years in exile is difficult, and many refugees are torn between the desire to return home and concerns, worries and fears they continue to have. The UNHCR’s most recent intention survey, for example, showed that although 66 per cent of refugees in Jordan hope to be able to return to Syria one day, and only 8 per cent have a more specific intention to return home this year. Fourteen per cent remained undecided.

The decision to return home is complex. For example, data shows that more women than men are returning to Syria. Fear of conscription remains a main concern. In recent discussions with refugees originating from Damascus and rural Damascus, many women told us about their worries for their husbands and sons: “I cannot go back. I have a 17 year old son who will be conscripted.”

Other obstacles include prevailing safety and security concerns, worries related to their homes and properties, gaps in their civil documentation and uncertainty regarding work opportunities.

Additionally, some refugees wish to return, but cannot afford to do so. Accumulative costs for documentation, exit formalities, transportation and reintegration can over-burden the already-impoverished refugees in Jordan. In recent discussions, one woman simply said, “It is too expensive to go back.”

But for others, returning home is the culmination of years of hope. “I cannot wait to be back at home,” a young returnee from Jasim in Daraa said as he was departing Jaber border crossing for Syria. “My home is safe now and I just want to see my family again.” Family is often cited as a reason for refugee return, and for some, improved security too. Others who return say that they do not want to be refugees any longer after experiencing years of economic hardship.

Syrian refugees are not a homogenous group; they are as diverse as we all are, each of them with a unique history and future pathway. The use of the term “refugee” may disguise this diversity and we need to be careful that we do not become robotic in our approach but remain nuanced, as we continue to respond to those who stay in Jordan, but also ensure the right to return of those who make an informed and voluntary decision to go home.

The UNHCR has over 60 years of experience in voluntary repatriations of refugees across the world. This experience has taught us that the voluntary nature of returns is important in ensuring returns are sustainable. We are, therefore, providing refugees with return counselling to address any questions or concerns they have, to make sure that any decision to return is a voluntary decision made by the refugees themselves.

Today, obstacles to voluntary returns in safety and dignity remain manifold. The gradual removal of these impediments will be important for those refugees who wish to return home. As the UNHCR, we are encouraged by the close collaboration with the concerned government entities in this endeavour and the constructive dialogue had thus far.

At the recent London conference, many development actors and private sector companies have confirmed their interest to invest in Jordan, recognising the invaluable hospitality that the Kingdom has provided to refugees over time. As we head to Brussels for the third conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region this week, we need to be mindful that the majority of refugees will stay in Jordan for the foreseeable future and are in need of robust support by the international community. This is not the time to disengage. Continued support for the humanitarian response to the refugee needs in Jordan is essential to ensure space for refugees to make voluntary decisions. Neglect is not an acceptable reason for people to return.


The writer is the UNHCR’s Jordan representative. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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