Growing numbers of Syrian refugees are returning to their war-ravaged homeland from Jordan because they can’t survive in exile after drastic aid cuts, can’t afford to pay smugglers to sneak them into Europe or are simply homesick.
The returns, along with the increasing migration to Europe, signal that conditions in regional host countries have become increasingly intolerable, the refugees and aid officials said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that close to 4,000 refugees returned to Syria from Jordan in August, about twice as many as the previous month.
“This is a very worrying trend, showing how hard the situation is for many families in Syria’s neighboring countries,” said Petr Kostohryz, the NRC’s country director in Jordan.
The increase in voluntary repatriation comes as food assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan is being drastically cut. In August, some 229,000 Syrian refugees in host communities already living below the national poverty line were told they would no longer receive food assistance, and many others have had their support cut in half.
More than 4 million Syrians have fled the civil war in their country, now in its fifth year. Most have settled in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, a majority living in urban areas. Banned from working legally, they depend on aid and odd jobs. Recent aid cuts by underfunded agencies, particularly the World Food Program, have been devastating.
“Many families see no other alternative than to return to a war-ravaged Syria, with the severe security risks that entails or to embark on a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. It is not a choice, but a desperate attempt to protect their families,” said Kostohryz.
In Jordan, more than half a million urban refugees were hit hardest, while about 100,000 living in camps were not affected by the latest cuts.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been eyeing the rising number of departures with concern.
“It is a dangerous choice for people to make,” said Andrew Harper, head of the UN refugee agency, in Jordan. He said the return of refugees, most of them women and children, to war-torn Syria “signals a failure of the international protection regime.”
It’s not clear how many plan to stay in Syria and how many view it as a way station. Some refugees told UN officials they plan to sell property so they can afford the journey to Europe. Others want to stay in their homeland.
About 94,000 Syrian refugees left Turkey for Syria in the past year, about half returning to the border town of Kobani after the ouster of Islamic State militants from the city in early 2015, a Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
More than 175,000 Syrian refugees from the region took the eastern sea route from Turkey to Greece between January and August of this year, while close to 7,000 traveled from North Africa to Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration. A total of close to 534,000 migrants reached Europe by sea during this period, the IOM said.
Only partial statistics about refugee movements are available from Turkey and Lebanon.
The UN refugee agency said it believes most of the more than 2 million Syrians in Turkey will stay put, largely because living conditions are better there than in Jordan and Lebanon.
In Lebanon, the number of registered refugees dropped by 140,000 since January, to 1,078,000. UN officials said they don’t yet know their whereabouts.
Hundreds of Syrians leave Lebanon daily by ship to Turkey, presumably with Europe as the final destination. Refugees in one district of Beirut said knew families that left for Europe, but none that had gone back to Syria.
A return to Syria is a one-way ticket. None of the three host countries allows multiple border crossings.