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We Must Ask Refugees What They Feel About Returning to Syria

The founder of the consultancy behind the annual Arab Youth Survey explains why they did their first-ever poll of Syrian refugees and what the young refugees surveyed in Lebanon and Jordan said about the conflict and their attitudes toward going home.

Written by Sunil John Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Syrian refugees working in the agricultural camps in Adana, Turkey, on July 16, 2017. Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto

Every day, tens of thousands of words are written on the Syrian conflict – by journalists, think-tank analysts, aid agencies and others. Yet one voice is conspicuous by its absence: the voice of those most affected by the war – the people who have fled their homes, their livelihoods and their futures.

The ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey – the most important research of its type into this crucial demographic across the Middle East – has itself excluded young Syrian voices since 2011, due to the security situation there.

This year, as part of the survey’s ninth edition, we are redressing that omission. For the first time, we conducted a supplementary poll alongside the Arab Youth Survey 2017, surveying 400 young Syrians, aged 18 to 24, living in refugee camps and settlements in Lebanon and Syria.

Six years of civil war in Syria have forced half of the population – more than 11 million people – from their homes, including 6 million people who have fled the country itself. This is the defining humanitarian catastrophe of our times, and one that will leave a bitter legacy for years, if not decades, to come.

The damage done to the Syrian economy is estimated by the World Bank at $226 billion, or more than four times the country’s prewar annual GDP. Less tangible, but inestimably worse, is the damage to a whole generation who have seen their education disrupted and their opportunities to find work and build livelihoods vanish.

We believe what they say really matters.

If the sheer scale of the crisis is alarming, our findings from this survey are sobering. Our key finding is that more than half of the young Syrians we surveyed – all living in testing conditions, in cramped refugee camps just miles from their homeland – say they don’t think they will ever permanently return to Syria. They look to North America, to Europe and – in the Arab world – to the UAE as safe havens in which they might be able to rebuild shattered lives.

The reality, however, is that their lives are on pause – according to the UNHCR, various nations have pledged to permanently resettle just 170,000 registered refugees in 2017.

Our survey reveals an interesting gender split into attitudes toward this issue: the men we surveyed think Europe can best help their plight by addressing their futures, by opening borders further and allowing more refugees to settle; the women, however, want Europe to address issues relating to their situation right now, by providing more aid to the camps and settlements in which they live.

Another striking finding reveals that young refugees are apathetic toward the political issues that drove the civil war they have fled. When asked what needs to happen in order for them to return home, the war ending was cited by nearly half (47 percent), while the so-called Islamic State (known locally as Daesh) leaving Syria was cited by a quarter (25 percent). This is a generation that is disillusioned with politics and weary of war.

One other important finding, and one that correlates with findings from the wider Arab Youth Survey, is that young Syrian refugees do not believe military action alone can defeat extremism. Young people across the Middle East believe education and the provision of good jobs is equally important, with young Syrians saying that they see media campaigns expressly de-linking the ideology of Daesh from the true practices of Islam as the most important tactic against extremism.

This is a critical finding – it shows that young Syrians’ beliefs are clearly aligned with their peers throughout the region on these important issues.

As important as it is, it is my sincerest hope that this special survey on refugees is a one-off; and that in future young Syrian voices are once again heard alongside those from the 16 nations surveyed in the Arab Youth Survey, discussing their hopes, their fears and their aspirations not from camps or settlements on the borders of their homeland but from their home towns and villages themselves.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of News Deeply.

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