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When Do Refugees Return Home?

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A woman cooking on the stove in front of her house in Aleppo, Syria, in February of 2012.

Since 2011, millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes in what the UNCHR has called the “world’s largest refugee crisis.” As the war in Ukraine leads to more massive displacement of people, refugee protection and migration policies are back in the headlines. And while a lot of attention is paid to when—and under what conditions—refugees can return to their countries, much less has been said and written about what circumstances need be in place for refugees to exercise agency and choose to return to their homes.

SIS professor Stefanie Onder; Northwestern University professor Lori Beaman; and Harun Onder, a senior economist at the World Bank, recently conducted an empirical analysis of refugee returns to Syria. We spoke with Professor Onder to learn more about the trio’s research and the factors that increase the likelihood of early, voluntary, and unassisted returns by Syrian refugees.

You also can read Beaman, Onder, and Onder’s full original article, “When do refugees return home? Evidence from Syrian displacement in Mashreq,” with access provided by the American University Library.

As you write in this article, the conditions under which refugees can return to their countries have been studied extensively, but the conditions under which they would choose to return have received less attention. Why is it important to analyze voluntary and unassisted returns of refugees?
The protection of refugees has historically been the primary concern of the international community in forced displacement situations. With another round of massive displacement currently unfolding—this time in Ukraine—it is not difficult to see why. Refugees’ access to a safe environment and sustainable livelihoods are the most important determinants of their wellbeing, and the failure to provide those conditions can easily lead to humanitarian catastrophes. Therefore, despite many shortcomings, there exists a system of international legislation, including the 1951 Geneva Convention, that regulates the flow of refugees and their sheltering in host countries.
Within this legal background, however, refugees retain economic agency. For example, they may choose not to exercise their residency rights in exile and return to their countries of origin when conditions permit. Unfortunately, the legal framework for protection has little to say about when such spontaneous returns may happen—it rather focuses on when and how these cannot happen, e.g., the non-refoulement principle. This is where our research has focused: What are the factors that explain such return behavior? How do conditions in exile and in the country of origin drive such decisions?
This is, of course, not the first time these questions have been analyzed. Earlier papers considered the drivers of refugees’ return decisions, but they have largely focused on return intentions (e.g., self-reported willingness to return under hypothetical conditions) rather than actual returns. We made progress by presenting an empirical analysis of the actual early (voluntary and unassisted) return decisions of 2 million Syrian refugees who were displaced between January 2011 and March 2018. Although the number of returnees remained small in this time frame and mass returns may be very different, we show that the nature of these initial returns can nevertheless help shed light on subsequent returns.
Why did you decide to focus this research specifically on the return decisions of two million Syrian refugees who were displaced between January 2011 and March 2018?
The brutal conflict in Syria, which has been raging for more than 10 years now, has created the world's largest forced displacement crisis since World War II. As of March 2022, over half of the country's pre-conflict population was displaced. According to UNHCR statistics, about 6.7 million Syrians remained within Syria and another 6.6 million took refuge in other countries. The vast majority of those refugees were hosted by countries bordering Syria, where they sometimes made up a fifth of the host country’s local population as they did in Lebanon.
This research project was originally initiated as part of a joint World Bank-UNHCR collaboration, which aimed to shed light on the spontaneous return movements of Syrian refugees in the Mashreq region, titled The Mobility of Displaced Syrians: An Economic and Social Analysis. Thus, while it is facilitated by a collaboration between development and humanitarian organizations at the macro level, it also builds on a tight collaboration between economists, political scientists, legal scholars, sociologists, engineers, and data scientists.
Taking advantage of this collaboration, our research helped to quantitively test some of the key qualitative intuitions developed by other case studies. Earlier attempts to analyze the drivers of refugee returns were hampered by severe data limitations. This is very common in situations of conflict and the very data-intensive nature of the problem, which requires microdata about the conditions in exile and the country of origin as well as detailed information about refugees themselves. In this paper, we made progress by combining a large number of different datasets.
For demographic characteristics of refugees and their arrival and return information, we used administrative data from the UNHCR’s Profile Global Registration System database for registered refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. For the conditions faced by refugees in exile, we used vulnerability surveys conducted by UN agencies in Jordan and Lebanon, complemented with a new household survey that also included vignettes about the drivers of return. Finally, for conditions in Syria, we have compiled a novel monthly conflict events dataset to use along with nighttime light emissions data that proxies access to utilities.
What did your analysis reveal about what factors or conditions increased the likelihood of early, voluntary, and unassisted returns? Were there any patterns you found explaining who returned and when?
Our research provides empirical evidence for an argument that has been used frequently by humanitarian actors. The early return is largely driven by security conditions in the country of origin. Better security in refugees’ hometowns unambiguously lead to higher return numbers in all of our specifications. However, this does not mean that other factors do not matter. Controlling for the security conditions, higher nightlight luminosity also increases returns. This can be interpreted narrowly as access to publicly provided services (a functioning electricity grid) or more broadly as economic conditions.
These findings, which rely on actual return patterns, are also corroborated by an analysis of the self-reported intentions collected with our hypothetical vignette survey. For example, we find that conditions in Syria—particularly whether the family's house in Syria was destroyed and the conditions of schools—are found to have a major effect on return intentions. These results are aligned with the explanations offered by standard models of migration, where individuals compare the expected payoffs in each location to decide whether they should move or not.
We also found that the nature of the early returns could shape subsequent returns. For example, subsequent return is initially much more likely to occur when the first returnee (leader) is prime aged, or between 15 and 64 years old. It is rare that there are followers when an older member of the core family returns to high conflict areas. By contrast, for cases returning to relatively low conflict areas, we see a similar rate of followers for leaders who are either prime aged or older.
What is the most surprising finding your data revealed about Syrian displacement and return decisions?
We often come across statements like, “If refugees have good conditions in exile, then they will not return.” By extension, this implies that if they face worse conditions, then they will return. We did not find evidence that supports this view. On the contrary, in certain aspects, like access to food, poor conditions in exile reduced the likelihood of return. Unfortunately, our data was not rich enough to test the underlying mechanisms that lead to this outcome. However, we propose a simple theory that can explain it: Refugees are concentrated in the lower end of the income distribution and, even when they want to return, they frequently cannot afford the risky and costly return journey. An improvement in their conditions in exile can lead to more returns, as we observed in the case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.
What practical implications do these results have for the design of humanitarian interventions for refugees and policies of host countries targeting the return of refugees?
Our research has a few important policy implications. First, authorities in the host country should not refrain from supporting refugees by thinking that would make their presence permanent. In many cases, it is the opposite; it is the impoverished refugees who cannot afford the return. Thus, policies that aim to limit the economic opportunities of refugees can be self-defeating. Second, facilitating return requires a comprehensive policy framework that also targets the conditions on the ground in the country of origin—safety concerns, employment prospects, and access to public goods and services all matter in this process. Finally, our research has also shown once more that refugee return is a complex process, and any attempts to shed light on this process with analytical rigor are appreciated by policymakers, as we have experienced personally in our project.