The ongoing armed conflict in Syria has displaced millions of people inside and outside the country sparking an international humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 6 million Syrians fled out of Syria13 and an additional 6.5 million people, including 2.8 million children, have been displaced internally since 2011. In addition, over 2.4 million displaced Syrians have returned to their community of origin.14 In 2016, 113,000 of them were again displaced.15 In 2017, the same pattern continues: more than 20,000 individuals of returnee households from January to June 2017 were displaced again after their return, about 4% fleeing outside Syria while the majority (96%) were displaced internally.16 Syrian returnee households remain at risk of becoming internally displaced (again), most likely attributed to changes in safety and security. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) noted the risks of further displacement upon return to Syria in The Invisible Majority series. 17 In late June 2017, UNHCR brought international attention to the spontaneous returns of displaced persons in/to Syria, highlighting two key return trends:
• Internal Returns: more than 440,000 internally displaced people have returned to their homes in Syria from January to June 2017.18 Internal displacement remains prevalent: according to Needs and Population Monitoring (NPM) 2016 data, the majority of returnee households (93%) had been internally displaced.19
• International Returns: 31,000 refugees crossed the border back into Syria in the first half of 2017.20
Talking too early about or funding assistance programs that intentionally or incidentally encourage returns to Syria – where fighting still rages, incomegenerating opportunities are rare, access to services is scarce, and Durable Solutions are lacking – may result in unintended harmful outcomes.
Previous research highlighted that these spontaneous returns have not been fully informed, safe, voluntary, or sustainable.21 Although preliminary data exist, there is no clear picture of the number of returns or conditions in places of return and progress towards achieving solutions. This is in great part due to the limited access of humanitarian organisations on the ground. Protocols for working in government and non-government areas also make provision of humanitarian assistance difficult and limit access to vulnerable host communities, IDPs and returnees. Humanitarian organisations continue to stress that there is still a high degree of displacement occurring within Syria.22 Refugee returns to Syria are neither promoted nor facilitated at this time by UNHCR and other organisations, and the focus remains on further investing resources in host countries in the region and internationally to “preserve protection space.
Returns are not safe in a context of continued displacement: the Syrian civil war is a protracted crisis complicated by foreign interventions (Russian, Turkish and American), stalled peace talks and a delicate Astana agreement.24 Protocols for working in government and non-government areas make provision of humanitarian assistance difficult and limit access to vulnerable host communities, IDPs and returnees. As a result, UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations continue to stress that there is still a high degree of displacement occurring within Syria.25 In August 2017 alone, there were 120,000 individuals internally displaced within Syria.
The present report contributes to building the information base on spontaneous returns of IDPs and refugees. It is critical to present – to the humanitarian community, state and non-state actors – this study’s findings in a way that respects and adheres to Do No Harm principles in regional policies and donor programming.27 In recent years, shifting border policies with Syria’s neighbouring, host countries have often been viewed as impeding refugee well-being and safety. In Jordan, the 2016 closure of the border trapped around 75,000 Syrians in a ‘no man’s land,’ pushing them towards loss of basic services and protection risks,28 including forced return to Syria by Jordanian authorities.