Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Repatriation of refugees from Arab conflicts: scenarios for reconstruction

The prospects for early repatriation of refugees who have fled conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen in recent years do not yet look promising. Nevertheless, not only have discussions about repatriation started at both national and international levels, but there is also a steady, though still limited, stream of refugees in neighbouring countries trickling back to their war-ravaged homes. This column summarises the latest ERF-FEMISE Euromed Report, which discusses the issue of repatriation in general and as a potential solution to the refugee crisis.

In a nutshell

The major problem for repatriation of refugees is the persistence of the conflicts from which they have fled: these continue in varying forms and at varying intensities in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

While mass repatriation at this stage remains premature for all four war-torn countries, the current situation demands an unpacking of the issue in all its dimensions, so that if and when the time comes, informed actions can be taken.

Such exploration of scenarios for reconstruction can help to support the most positive outcomes – primarily for the refugees, but also for other stakeholders, such as host communities and those left behind in the conflict countries.

When the Arab uprisings broke out in 2011, hopes were raised that they would lead to the establishment of democratic regimes in the region and open the door for broad-based development. Yet as of late 2019, with the exception of Tunisia, these hopes have not been realised. It remains to be seen whether any final settlements could lead to genuine democracy, particularly in those countries where persistent civil conflicts have forced millions to become refugees, mostly in neighbouring countries but also beyond.

Given current conditions, voluntary repatriation – as defined by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention (voluntary, safe and dignified return) – is not commonly feasible. The reasons are the lack of robust and credible political settlements of the conflicts that would guarantee the security of returning individuals and communities as well as both their human rights and their property rights.

In addition, there is an absence of a substantial reconstruction agenda, which, in turn, hinges on the achievement of meaningful political settlements. The relatively limited voluntary repatriation of certain refugees has been made under specific conditions that permitted their return.

With these considerations in mind, this year’s ERF-FEMISE Euromed Report reaches five main conclusions.

Refugees from Arab conflicts: scale and characteristics

First, the conflicts in the region have caused millions to flee their homeland or forced them to be internally displaced within their own countries. As of mid-2019, 6.4 million refugees had fled from Syria with the majority settling in neighbouring countries. Turkey has received half of them, while Lebanon and Jordan have a combined share of about 2.4 million. About a million refugees have settled in Europe, mainly in Germany and Sweden.

In Yemen, over two million have experienced internal displacement, mostly in Houthi-controlled territories with spillovers into neighbouring African countries. Between 2014 and 2018, over three million Iraqis suffered internal displacement, while over 280,000, mostly women and children, were forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, mainly Turkey.

Refugees who have settled in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have mostly come from rural and poorer areas in Syria. Over half of them are children and most of the adults are not well educated. Poverty is widespread. Half of the Syrian refugee households suffer from very poor living conditions with a very high unemployment rate among those able to work. The prospects for potential integration in their host countries are very low.

By contrast, Syrian refugees in Europe are better educated and more economically able. Should they decide to settle in the countries of their refuge, the prospects are probably high.

Incentives for refugees to return

Second, most refugees would opt to return to their home countries but there are multifaceted conditions that govern their return, security at home being one of the most important. At the same time, in deciding on return, refugees take account of the political, economic and social factors in both the host and home countries. There is also a gender dimension to repatriation in that men and women have different priorities and act differently.

Restoration of security in certain parts of a country in conflict, as in Syria, has induced a limited return of refugees who hail from these parts. But a major issue here is that to the extent that a political settlement has not yet been reached, this type of return may not be sustainable: the conflict may erupt again in areas considered to be safe or secured by the state.

A wider consideration is the nature of a political settlement and specifically whether it is politically inclusive and could lead to democratic forms of governance. Refugees may view returning home as a political act equivalent to recognising the legitimacy of the regime in the home country. Unless they feel they will be protected by the state, they may opt not to return and contribute to the rebuilding process.

Equally, refugees’ perceived economic interests play a role in their decision to return or not – that is, their expectations of the conditions of livelihood in their home country and of opportunities for work and access to social services. Here the gender issue is key: households headed by women tend to be more concerned with the provision of services, especially schools and hospitals for their children, while men are more concerned with the availability of work opportunities and access to livelihood.

Other considerations that influence the decision of refugees to return or not include family circumstances in exile and in the home country. For example, the presence of family back home can act as an important pull for refugees; but if their children are in school in the host country, this could delay the decision to return. Furthermore, consideration of prospects for reintegrating in the communities they had left could influence the decisions of refugees considering repatriation.

These considerations indicate clearly that in the absence of a genuine peace, repatriation of refugees faces many uncertainties. While the host countries are nonetheless eager to push in this direction, the voluntary return of refugees will continue to be severely constrained as a consequence of these considerations.

Of those who have returned voluntarily, information on Syrian early repatriates (about 3% of the total) indicates that 58% are men citing joining family members as the main reason for return. This is followed by, first, the deteriorating conditions in the country of asylum; second, an improved security situation back home; and finally, the desire to work. The returning refugees mostly hailed from Turkey (40%), followed by Lebanon (36%) and a small number from Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

According to a 2019 World Bank study, demographic variables that are positively correlated with return include being single, male and less educated. Of the pull factors, the most important is security and then available services, such as education and health facilities. Push factors include efforts undertaken by countries of asylum to induce premature return, especially in Lebanon, a hostile environment and unsustainable living conditions.

Rebuilding the social contract between refugees and the post-conflict regime

Third, whatever motives drive refugees to go back home, their return should be viewed as a process of political rapprochement between citizen, community and state, which calls for the rebuilding of the social contract between the refugee and the state. This implies proper recognition of the political roots of the armed conflict and not only its humanitarian dimension and of the need for safety and security to be guaranteed through a political process that creates inclusive governance mechanisms, ends criminal impunity and facilitates reintegration, demilitarisation and access to justice.

The more genuinely inclusive the post-conflict regime, the greater the incentive for refugees to return. While this process may take time given the existing fragmentation within post-conflict scenarios, efforts to prepare refugees for a return have to begin in advance: for example, providing legal assistance and identifying trusted community mediators.

In practice, while the emerging post-conflict regime is normally the outcome of national reconciliation of the main parties, it may continue to exhibit strong elements of clientelism. In other words, post-conflict governance may fall short of the ideal inclusivity that would serve the common interest rather than catering to a client-patron relationship.

Looking at the MENA region, past political settlements, such as those following the Algerian and Lebanese civil wars (in 2002 and 1990 respectively, are a good illustration. In the former case, the settlement was credible but incomplete: a strong state grip by a group of elites of economic resources (mainly oil) and political power created a clientelist structure and transitional justice was not enforced. In the latter case, the settlement known as the Taif Agreement only managed to realign the political shares of religious sects in governance (the so-called ‘consociational democracy’) but did not eliminate existing inequality in citizens’ civil rights, as had been hoped.

While a large number of Lebanese citizens who left the country during the civil war did return once a political settlement was reached, a good number opted not to return, especially those who had emigrated to the United States.

For the countries currently in conflict, effective repatriation of refugees presents a huge challenge. It requires having sustainable political settlements leading to the establishment of democratic governance that in turn would support the safe return of refugees and open the door to their participation in planned reconstruction projects.

Resources for reconstruction

Fourth, in drawing up reconstruction plans, we should keep in mind that key drivers of growth in low- and middle-income countries include public capital, public infrastructure investments, private capital investments, human capital, total factor productivity, demographics and labour market outcomes. Making available the resources needed to finance the required investment in all of these areas, as well as the workforce to implement them, is a huge challenge facing post-conflict reconstruction plans. Foreign financing will play a crucial role, as too will potentially returning capital as well as remittances from those staying abroad.

In the case of Syria, empirical work shows that if there were a large amount of reconstruction assistance and repatriation forthcoming and hence high investment within the first decade of reconstruction, then Syria would be able to surpass its 2010 GDP and GDP per capita levels in 10 years’ time.

But of course, this optimistic scenario may not emerge. An alternative pessimistic scenario, which embeds the assumptions of limited guarantees for security and property rights, low reconstruction funds and low investment, suggests that it would take two or three decades for Syria to catch and surpass its 2010 GDP levels.

These findings imply that high post-conflict economic performance is possible in Syria if long-term political stability is achieved, market-friendly mechanisms are redesigned to obtain efficient allocation of resources throughout the economy, appropriately designed reconstruction and repatriation programmes are implemented and those programmes are supported by sustainable financing facilities.

Remittances of Syrians (basically of those in the process of integrating into the socio-economic life of their host countries) could be a major channel through which migration may influence the wellbeing of individuals at home.

As for repatriation, if returning migrants are highly skilled, then repatriation has a clear positive impact on the economic outcomes in the home country. Further return migrants would contribute to reconstructing national institutions and raise their quality. On the other hand, one should bear in mind that the repatriation movement could lead to a limited decline in wages and a small increase in the unemployment rate in the short run.

New models of reconstruction and repatriation

Fifth, a cautionary conclusion is in order. It is not surprising that, so far, repatriation efforts have been much less successful than expected. As indicated, lack of security in the home countries and anticipation on the part of the refugees of recurring conflicts is a major explanatory factor. Until hostilities are permanently ended and a genuine national reconciliation is achieved in the countries suffering from conflict, particularly Syria and Yemen, a sustained programme of repatriation is clearly not expected to succeed to any great extent.

But even when peace is restored, it is essential for the parties concerned (national governments and international organisations), when designing future repatriation programmes of refugees, to address other hindrances that have been associated with the so far limited return of refugees. This would include a lack of coordination between the parties concerned with repatriation, a failure of the home country to address issues of property rights and a lack of sufficient international support for repatriation programmes.

Past repatriation and reconstruction efforts were intended to address specific regional or country-specific concerns. But while the effects of existing Arab conflicts and their associated refugee problems remain basically regional concerns, they have now spilled beyond the region to become a global problem. This implies the need for coordinated policy action between all the governments and international organisations concerned to reach an all-encompassing solution that accounts for this new dimension of the refugee problem.

Past regional models and/or individual country efforts may no longer be useful or sustainable. Looking forward to the post-conflict phase, new reconstruction models and institutions would need to be designed to avoid the inefficiencies of the past and lay the foundations for sustainable programmes of repatriation.

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