AMMAN, Jordan—A new humanitarian catastrophe is looming on the horizon as thousands of refugees and internally displaced people return to their homes in Syria, by choice or by force. Changes in the course of Syria’s civil war and developments in fragile peace talks are making return a reality and, in some cases, a nightmare, as conditions inside Syria are still dire. The widespread, premature return of Syrians to their towns and cities could undermine the country’s long-term stability and hinder the hopes of more Syrians coming back.
Throughout the war, there has been a constant trickle of refugees returning to Syria, even in the early days of the conflict, owing to dynamics on the ground and the fluid situation on Syria’s borders. But now, many more are returning due to perceptions of improved security following a cease-fire in southern Syria, backed by the United States, Russia and Jordan, along with various other local cease-fires under Russia’s so-called de-escalation plan. For the first time in years, some refugees have the confidence to return to check on the condition of their homes and to reunite with family members. For other refugees, conditions in their host country—the lack of economic opportunity, high costs of living and expensive medical care—are driving them home. According to a United Nations survey published in June, three out of four Syrian refugees expressed interest in going back if conditions improved inside Syria.
Return is still dangerous due to the precarious nature of the war. The U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, maintains that it will neither promote nor facilitate refugees going back because the “conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria.” UNHCR country offices play a principal role in educating refugees on the conditions in Syria, outlining the potential dangers of returning.