Picking Up the Pieces: Realities of return and reintegration in North-East Syria (November 2018)

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Without improved conditions, legal frameworks to ensure returnees’ rights, and humanitarian access to areas of return; conditions for dignified returns are not in place. Hence, overall, returns of persons displaced by the Syrian conflict are neither promoted nor facilitated by the humanitarian community. However, in January to June 2018, it was estimated that 744,990 IDPs and 15,714 refugees returned to their areas of origin in Syria. In North-east Syria, 136,188 returns in Raqqa governorate and 18,702 in Hasakeh governorate were reported in January to June 2018. A majority of displaced Syrians who have returned were internally displaced persons (IDPs) from camps or nearby areas within their governorate of origin; rather than returning from other governorates in Syria or from neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, many Syrians remain displaced and it is suggested that the loss of the power of the so-called Islamic State of the Levant’s (ISIL) alone, without a broader political settlement, will not lead to widespread refugee returns. While acknowledging that a majority of displaced Syrians have not returned - an improved understanding of the return and reintegration process can be instrumental to, eventually, facilitating durable solutions for displaced populations in the longer term. The objectives of this research were:

• To understand the returnee populations’ push and pull factors in decisions to return.

• To explore returnees’ preparations and journey of return.

• To assess returnees’ progress towards reintegration according to the IASC criteria of durable solutions.

Data collection was conducted in July and August 2018, with a geographical focus on areas under self-administration in Hasakeh and Raqqa governorates, north-east Syria (NES). The study focused on households living in urban areas only and did not cover households living in IDP camps. Four population groups were included in the study; Syrian refugee returnees, Syrian IDP returnees, Syrian IDPs and non-displaced Syrians. All data collection activities used purposive sampling, which consisted of (i) 813 household surveys covering all four population groups, (ii) 31 focus group discussions (FGDs) with returnees and IDPs, (iii) eight life stories with returnees and IDPs and (iv) six key informant interviews. Although the respective contexts in Hasakeh and Raqqa governorates are distinct, this study focused on comparisons across population groups (rather than geographical area), though relevant differences in governorates were highlighted. As survey respondents were selected using purposive sampling, findings could not be tested for statistical significance and results are indicative only.


The lack of employment opportunities, lack of basic services and lack of safety/security at the location of displacement were the primary push factors that led assessed refugees and IDPs to return to their community of origin. For refugee returnees, the lack of economic opportunities (39%) and lack of basic services (25%) were the most commonly reported primary push factors. For IDP returnees, primary push factors were the lack of basic services (39%) and the lack of safety/ security (34%). This suggests that the lack of basic services was a dominant push factor for returnees, regardless of whether they were displaced inside or outside of Syria.

Primary pull factors for returns were less varied than push factors, in which a majority of refugee returnees (66%) and IDP returnees (72%) reported improved safety at the community of origin to be their primary pull factor that motivated decisions to return. This was followed by 16% of refugee returnees who reported homesickness and nostalgia and 10% of IDP returnees who reported reoccupying assets as their primary pull factor for return.

Although some returnees reported the lack of basic services as a push factor (which could relate to the lack of humanitarian assistance), FGD findings suggest that the level of humanitarian assistance at the community of origin was not a significant pull factor that motivated decisions to return. Returnees were reportedly not aware of the level of humanitarian assistance available at their community of origin or perceived they would not qualify for aid. However, returnees reported the need for assistance upon return and reintegration.


To obtain information on whether and how to return, returnees mainly relied on information from family, relatives and friends who returned before them or were living in the community of origin, as well as on news updates from the media. A large majority of assessed returnees in FGDs reported that the father, husband or head of household made the decision to return, and all household members agreed with the decision to return. For some returnee households, the father or head of household returned first to ensure general safety and to restore the house before the rest of the family returned after a few days or weeks.

According to FGDs, information was sometimes found to be inaccurate or the volatile situation meant that returnees faced unexpected risks along the journey, e.g. explosive remnants of war (ERW) risks, despite obtaining advice from friends and relatives when planning the route. Some returnees relied on smugglers that charged high costs, and/or had to pay a large sum of money, faced abuse, harassment or even kidnappings when passing through checkpoints.


Household surveys found no distinct patterns to suggest that IDP returnees and/or refugee returnees faced higher levels of vulnerability (in relation to IASC criteria assessed) compared to the non-displaced. IDPs scored lowest in progress towards indicators outlined under IASC’s criteria for durable solutions, compared to returnees and the non-displaced.

  • Safety and security: Although improved safety was the primary pull factor for return, FGD findings suggest that returnees feared ERW, kidnappings, gun shootings and harassment. Returnees also mentioned the fear of renewed conflict that would force them to be displaced again, which suggests that returns could be unsustainable.

  • Access to goods and services: When assessing access to basic food, drinking water, housing and healthcare, the lowest proportion of households reported having access to drinking water. This ranged from 30% of refugee returnee households to 40% of IDP households reporting sufficient and regular access. Returnees and IDPs alike mentioned high living costs and the need for assistance (e.g. distributing water tanks to store water, food assistance, improved medical facilities).

  • Access to income-generating opportunities: Low proportions of each population group - including 67% of IDPs, 76% of IDP returnees, 76% of the non-displaced and 78% of refugee returnee households - reported having access to income-generating opportunities. Returnees reportedly spent a lot of money abroad including paying high smuggling costs to return, which result in returnees lacking the capital to start businesses.

  • Access to mechanisms in restoring Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights or receiving compensation: A considerable proportion of IDP returnees (30%) and refugee returnees (29%) reported their house to be damaged in the community of origin, with very few respondents reported receiving compensation for their property damage. Returnees relied on relatives’ support to rehabilitate their house, while some IDPs reported not being able to return as their houses were completely damaged.

  • Access to and replacement of personal and other documentation: High proportion of households reported having access to documentation. Refugee returnees (86%) had the lowest proportion of households with family booklets; and IDPs (97%) had the lowest proportion of households with national ID cards. However, percentages are likely to be significantly lower for households in camps (not covered in this study) given documents could be confiscated.

  • Voluntary reunification with family members: Refugee returnees (25%) had the highest proportion of households reporting family separation; compared to the non-displaced (7%), IDPs (9%) and IDP returnees (9%). A majority (67%) of respondents were reunited with all family members that were separated during displacement.

  • Access to humanitarian assistance: A higher proportion of IDPs reported having access to humanitarian assistance (45%) compared to returnees and non-displaced (23% combined). Regarding perceptions, the non-displaced (33%) were least likely to perceive equal access. As findings suggest that the non-displaced also faced vulnerabilities, more attention is needed to address the needs of the non-displaced to avoid any community tension caused by the presence of IDPs and returnees.


Upon return, 34% of refugee returnees and 19% of IDP returnees reported the situation at their community of origin to be worse than they had expected. A few FGD participants reported receiving false information (e.g. availability of shelter rehabilitation support). FGD findings suggest that although respondents did not regret their decision to return, their threshold for return and expectations were extremely low. Households returned despite knowing that their house was damaged and the lack of basic services available at their communities of origin. With poor living conditions in displaced locations (and community of origin), some households preferred returning to be closer to family and friends.

Overall, the rights of displaced Syrians should be upheld regardless of whether people stay, return or move elsewhere. To tackle the protracted nature of displacement, further research could identify opportunities for broader collaboration between humanitarian, development and stabilisation actors.