The conflict in Syria continues to drive the largest displacement crisis in the world. There are over 5.4 million refugees across the region and over six million people remain internally displaced. While fighting continues in some parts of Syria, recent developments on the ground have also meant that people have returned to areas where fighting has receded.
There were over 840,000 returns in Syria in 2017: the self-organized return of over 77,0001 Syrian refugees, as well as over 764,000 IDPs.
UNHCR’s overall approach towards Syrian refugees is anchored in a comprehensive protection and solutions strategy. This seeks to: i) support host country resilience; ii) enable refugee self-reliance; iii) expand access to resettlement and other safe pathways to a third country, and; iv) plan for voluntary repatriation of refugees to Syria when conducive conditions are in place. The approach is, by design and necessity, grounded in partnership and collaboration with all stakeholders.
UNHCR’s position is that present conditions in Syria are not conducive for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity. Significant risks remain for civilians across the country. UNHCR is neither promoting nor facilitating refugee returns at this stage. However, as people are returning on their own, it is critical to continue planning for eventual UNHCR-assisted repatriation to Syria, including for a potential larger-scale facilitation of voluntary repatriation when conditions for a safe and dignified return are in place.
The purpose of this document is to outline current planning efforts related to repatriation. It includes UNHCR’s policy and operational response for actual and future refugee returns, both self-organized and organized by other governments or UNHCR, back to Syria. It is developed in the context of UNHCR’s protection and solutions mandate under international law for refugees from the time they are displaced until they return voluntarily, safely and in dignity, in a sustainable manner, back to Syria.
UNHCR’s planning for return in Syria is characterized by two phases:
Phase 1 is the current phase, where the necessary conditions are not in place for safe and dignified return, but there are some self-organized returns occurring. During this phase, return should not be encouraged. UNHCR engagement on return during this phase is limited to planning, monitoring, counselling, advocacy, and ongoing analysis of obstacles to and conditions necessary for return, and identifying the necessary actions to address them. Self-organized returnees are assisted through ongoing humanitarian programmes.
Phase 2 will occur when conditions have substantially changed and large-scale voluntary repatriation can be facilitated by UNHCR and partners. A shift to phase 2 would be governed by four criteria:
Legal framework(s), guaranteeing rights of returnees and unhindered access to them and return areas, is in place;
There is clear evidence of Protection Thresholds (see pages 7 & 8) being met in the place(s) of return;
There is an improvement in conditions in return areas;
Refugees actively request support from UNHCR to return, in large numbers.
This document outlines the planning assumptions, operational stance and activities that would be carried out by UNHCR for each phase. For both phases, UNHCR would take a needs-based approach consistent with the ongoing humanitarian response inside Syria for IDPs, host communities, IDP returnees, and others in need. In both phases, assistance would be based on careful analysis so as to not incentivize returns or create pull factors. More broadly, UNHCR will seek to ensure voluntary repatriation and reintegration of refugees fits within longer-term development plans and coordination structures inside Syria.