By Paul Callan, Anna De Palma, Talya Lockman-Fine, Alaa’ Odeh, and Taufiq Rahim
The scale of the conflict in Syria is hard to comprehend: almost half a million people killed, according to some estimates, and more than half of the country’s pre-war population displaced. By all measures, the conflict has resulted in one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. With 6.5 million internally displaced people and another 4.8 million Syrian refugees in host countries, addressing displacement in the short and long term is integral in the response to the crisis.
In recent months, there have been international efforts to reach a cease-fire, to middling success. While there is still no end in sight to the violence in the short term, the situation on the ground is shifting, at least in some areas. For example, some U.S.-backed rebels are making gains against the Islamic State in the north. Islands of peace and stability will likely emerge in the medium term in Syria, regardless of the progress of the overall negotiations. As the focus turns to reconstruction and reconciliation, the displaced could have new opportunities to return.
Reversing displacement requires advanced planning. We have studied the aftermath of several past conflicts as well as the on-the-ground reality in Syria and found that the following specific actions can be taken to enable successful returns:
Leverage technology to increase refugees’ access to information. Access to information is critical. Information enables refugees and IDPs to make informed decisions, increasing the likelihood that returns are voluntary and sustainable. Currently, the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, runs Return Help Desks that provide Somali refugees in Kenya with information on returning home. In Syria, the use of smartphones among displaced Syrians and the use of social media—among both pro-opposition and government sides—means greater numbers of people can be reached through innovative technological solutions. In Europe, refugeeinfo.edu—launched by Google, the International Rescue Committee, and MercyCorps—provides refugees up-to-date information about nearby resources. As the situation on the ground changes in Syria, these platforms can be adapted or new ones developed to provide information about conditions at home. It will be critical that these platforms are trusted or neutral sources, given the sectarian and political divisions.
Achieve a baseline of security through counter-terrorism and border control. Violence after formal periods of calm disincentivizes returns. For example, ongoing security issues in Afghanistan and Iraq have slowed the pace of refugees returning home. Local and international cooperation against extremist groups, who will seek to play spoiler, will need to remain a priority in Syria for a number of years. In addition, authorities will need to regain control of Syria’s borders: Weak borders would not only facilitate these groups, but also other criminal gangs that undermine security.
Invest in economic development and opportunity. Failure to think long-term has consequences. In Guatemala, a rapid wave of repatriations in the mid-1990s occurred even before the official end of the civil war, but subsequent lack of economic opportunity prompted some families to resettle back to Mexico. In Syria, international actors such as the World Bank and regional development agencies will be instrumental in fostering development and opportunity, including through investments in employment and education. However, encouraging the return of Syrian “capital”—in the form of the private sector and individuals—may be even more important to drive local investment and opportunity.
Safeguard the rights of the displaced in any political agreements. Alongside the international legal framework for the protection of refugees, accords tied to particular conflicts should include context-specific provisions that facilitate returns. Guatemala’s October Accord in 1992 included strong rights for refugees, such as dignified returns and freedom of association, organization, and movement. In Syria, provisions for protecting the rights of refugees must be an integral part of even local-level agreements, especially considering the concerns that returnees may have about potential retribution.
Ensure solutions are inclusive and take into account Syria’s sectarian complexities. The needs of returnees must be situated in the broader context. In Bosnia, reconstruction efforts, such as land restitution, at times neglected the specific needs of returnees, while ethnic minorities specifically experienced continued discrimination. In Syria, deep sectarian divisions have partly driven displacement and will persist in the aftermath of conflict. Finding inclusive governance arrangements that engage various constituencies in local communities will be critical, even at a municipal council level.
The Syrian conflict will not be resolved easily, and even when gains for peace are made on the ground, sustainable reconstruction and development will take much longer. However, the international community, regional stakeholders, and local actors need to start planning and making investments so that, when there are opportunities for stability, the right conditions are put in place to give the more than 11 million displaced Syrians the option to return home.
Paul Callan is a partner at Dalberg. Talya Lockman-Fine is a Dalberg consultant. Taufiq Rahim is executive director of Globesight. Anna De Palma and Alaa’ Odeh also work at Globesight.
[Photo courtesy of Игорь М]