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Understanding What Syrian Refugees Want

An extensive survey of Syrian refugees in Turkey finds very few of them are en route to Europe. We speak to one of the researchers who conducted the poll about what made Syrians flee, and what they want from the peace process and the future.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Syrian refugees wait for the German chancellor during her visit at a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep on April 23, 2016. AFP/STR

While many parties to peace talks over Syria pay lip service to what the Syrian people want, most feel free to interpret their will. This is what makes the work of Kristin Fabbe and her colleagues Chad Hazlett and Tolga Sinmazdemir so important.

During the summer and fall of 2016, the trio of assistant professors from Harvard Business School, UCLA and Bogazici University in Turkey, respectively, conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,120 Syrians in Turkey, the country with the largest population of Syrian refugees.

The survey was carried out in Istanbul and in three Turkish provinces that border Syria: Gaziantep, Hatay and Sanliurfa. Great pains were taken to randomize the selection of respondents, choosing urban areas with heavy concentrations of Syrian refugees.

Fabbe said that respondents were diverse in terms of age, profession, ethnicity, language, sect and region of origin. Similar efforts were made to vary the sample with regard to when refugees fled Syria so as to get a range of experiences from different phases of the war. About 40 percent of the sample consisted of female Syrians.

Refugees Deeply: Why is it important to survey Syrians outside of Syria? In which forums would you hope that your results might have an influence?

Kristin Fabbe: For three main reasons: First, although political settlements that end civil wars are principally struck by political and military elites, a durable peace requires the willingness of the civilian groups both inside as well as outside Syria to embrace the terms of these political settlements. Second, about 90 percent of the Syrians we interviewed plan to return to Syria when the war is over. About 85 percent of them have family members in Syria, and an overwhelming majority of them continue to follow the news in Syria. In short, the Syrians we interviewed consider themselves part of the country’s future, and continue to be engaged with their home country.

Third, all the key players involved in the Syrian conflict have repeatedly referred to the Syrian people as the ultimate authority on the way forward. If these statements reflect the slightest amount of genuine concern for the views of Syrian people, our findings should clearly be paid attention to by the very same key players. Hence, our ambitious yet achievable hope is that our results will influence the key players negotiating the peace in Geneva talks as well as in the more recent talks that started in 2015 in Astana.

Refugees Deeply: Much of European policy has been directed at discouraging Syrians from continuing to Europe. Do your findings support the idea that most Syrians in Turkey are en route to Europe?

Fabbe: Not at all. In fact, one of the most striking results of our survey pertains to the Syrians’ future plans for settlement. When asked where they would like to live ideally five years from now, the vast majority of our respondents named Syria as their first choice, while only 6 percent said they wanted to live in Europe. When asked for their second choice, 85 percent of them said that they wanted to stay in Turkey, and only 9 percent said Europe. We did our interviews in the summer and fall of 2016, after the E.U.-Turkey refugee deal was struck in March 2016. Our conclusion based on these findings is that the Syrians who have not left Turkey to arrive in Europe before the deal have little intention of doing so in the future.

Refugees Deeply: What are the needs that respondents identified in Turkey itself? Were they primarily short-term needs, such as shelter, or longer-term issues that would suggest a desire to integrate?

Fabbe: While we cannot speak directly to the question of whether our respondents prioritize short-term needs versus long-term plans to integrate into the Turkish society and economy, we were able to gauge what types of short- and long-term needs and concerns they have. About 85 percent of our respondents were able to use healthcare services in Turkey, and about half of them were able to benefit from education services. One short-term need they were not able to utilize sufficiently is psychosocial support. This number is low, not only in the entire sample, but also among those who have come from barrel-bombed neighborhoods in Syria, and hence likely to be in most urgent need of such support. About 3 percent of our respondents from barrel-bombed neighborhoods have had a chance to use psychosocial support in Turkey.

Despite these challenges of addressing their short-term needs in Turkey, a majority of our respondents showed a remarkable desire to integrate into Turkish society. About 75 percent of them said they have plans to learn Turkish.

Refugees Deeply: Did your findings challenge popular preconceptions about Syria, such as the balance of support for different actors in the civil war?

Fig. 1

Fabbe: Beyond challenging the popular preconception that most refugees want to go to Europe, our research also produced some interesting findings about what we call “side taking” in the conflict. We cannot speak to the balance of support for different actors in the civil war at the national level, as the majority of our respondents are from Aleppo (see Fig. 1). If we were to have conducted this research in Lebanon or Jordan, we would have likely found very different results.

Two interesting things emerge about perceptions of security and “side taking.” First, more of our respondents believe that ISIS is the primary threat to the future of Syria as a country ahead of the Assad regime (~62% vs. ~37%), but the reverse holds when we ask about personal threats (~52% Assad vs. ~43% ISIS). Second, we found surprising the significant number of respondents who reported that no party to the conflict represents their interests.

Refugees Deeply: What did you learn about your respondents’ exposure to violence in the civil war and their reasons for leaving Syria?

Fabbe: What immediately jumps out from our findings is that over 92 percent of respondents cited “immediate danger” as their primary reason for leaving Syria. Second was “economic hardship,” with only about 1 percent of respondents. Put simply, most people in our sample left because they were afraid for their immediate personal safety.

We also learned about the number of people in our sample exposed to violence. For example, nearly 30 percent of respondents said that their neighborhoods were barrel bombed, and a little over 14 percent said people from their neighborhood were killed by these bombs. To give you a sense of the suffering people have endured, the following figures are illustrative:

  • 23 percent said people from their neighborhood were killed from shelling
  • 14 percent said people from their neighborhood were killed from rocket attack
  • 14 percent said people from their neighborhood were killed from suicide bombing
  • A smaller percentage (less than 1 percent) said people from their neighborhood were killed by insurgent fighting, sniper fire, torture or assassination.

One thing that these figures suggest is that much of the violence has been indiscriminate as opposed to selective and finely targeted, which brings high rates of civilian suffering and casualties. When considering these trends, it is important to realize that the people who responded to our survey are primarily (but not entirely) from urban areas of Aleppo.

Refugees Deeply: What did your findings suggest would be the main challenges for post-war Syria in terms of settling responsibility for war crimes and fostering peace and reconciliation?

Fabbe: On the issue of war crimes, people have a very diverse set of opinions about the appropriate types of punishments for different parties to the conflict, as well as the appropriate venues and vehicles for justice. Some want the international community involved in trials for war crimes, and others prefer that such trials are locally organized and conducted. Perhaps most challenging for transitional justice is the desire for extremely harsh punishments for parties to the conflict of all affiliations.

  • 19.66 percent of respondents think that “those who fought with the regime” should be executed
  • Around 9 percent of respondents think that “members of the regime” should be executed
  • 37 percent of respondents think that “opposition fighters that have killed civilians” should be executed
  • 49.47 percent of respondents think that “those who fought with ISIS” should be executed
  • 11.7 percent of respondents think that “members of local militias not clearly affiliated with political goals” should be executed.

Another problem is what I call the conundrum of post-conflict reconciliation, and it is certainly not unique to Syria. Over 98 percent of refugees say that they think Syria should remain a united and unitary state. When asked about what they consider to be an ideal resolution to the conflict, very few are in favor of partition or even a decentralized, federal system. However, we find that refugees are not willing to live in close proximity to former enemy combatants and their supporters. For example, 92 percent said they would be unwilling to live in a building or neighborhood with those who supported ISIS, while 87 percent said they would be unwilling to live under the same conditions with those who supported the Assad regime. These conflicting preferences – wanting a unified state but being unwilling to live with those who supported your enemies – make negotiation and reconciliation especially difficult after civil war.

There is also the basic issue of what people will require in order to return to Syria, and whether those things can be provided. Some 42 percent said they would require personal compensation for damages and losses before they would return, and 44.26 percent said they would need a secure job first.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

This story originally appeared on Refugees Deeply

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