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Normalizing Assad won’t solve Syrian refugee crisis

Even restoring the country to the pre-war status quo is unlikely to entice many refugees to return.
Girls stand next to a tent at the Al-Yunani makeshift camp for internally displaced people in Syria.

Middle Eastern leaders have been normalizing relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and looking ahead to sending Syrian refugees back to their home country, but it is too early to begin repatriating the 5.5 million Syrians who fled the country to escape the fighting there.

Turkey announced plans to repatriate a million Syrian refugees in the coming year, and Lebanon has already begun deporting some Syrian refugees. Although more than half of Syrian refugees in the Middle East want to return to Syria one day, only 1% intend to return within the next year. International law prohibits repatriating refugees against their will, and convincing Syrian refugees to return voluntarily is a long-term project that may not mesh with normalizing the Assad regime.

One of the leading reasons why refugees do not want to return in the near future is that the war is still ongoing, despite headlines and normalization campaigns that might suggest otherwise. Airstrikes by Russian and other forces continue to pelt the northern half of the country. Remnants of the Islamic State remain in Syria. Five foreign armies are still active in the country, as well as multiple other militias and mercenary groups. Our RAND Corporation research shows that even a decade after a conflict ends, the few refugees who return still live in significant instability and suffer internal displacement — so what chance do refugees have if they return to a place still in conflict?

Another reason why Syrian refugees do not want to return is that Syria lacks the basic infrastructure to support returnee populations. Whether considering hospitals, schools or water systems, Syria cannot provide the basic services needed to support the population already living there much less the millions of refugees displaced elsewhere in the region.

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