BEIRUT — The intensity of the war in Syria may have subsided in 2017 with the near defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and agreement to establish “de-escalation zones” in parts of the country. However, a sustainable political settlement seems out of reach for now.
That means not much has changed for millions of Syrians who have lived in dire conditions in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, since the onset of the conflict nearly seven years ago. Though some refugees returned to Syria this year, most have not budged as they await a final peace settlement that ensures their safe and sustainable repatriation.
International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said approximately 600,000 Syrians returned home in the first seven months of 2017; nearly all of whom were displaced within Syria. The rest, more than 31,000, returned from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
However, the rate of displacement in 2017 was higher than the rate of returnees. More than 800,000 people were displaced during the first seven months — many for the second or third time — and more than 6 million are displaced within the country.
The number of asylum seekers hoping to be resettled permanently in third countries has generally been increasing, indicating that many refugees have little hope of returning to Syria safely anytime soon.
“The caseload is on the increasing side, though it has decreased slightly in the second half of 2017,” said Ahmad al-Iraqi, IOM’s communication officer in Beirut. “IOM has resettled 80,000 refugees in Lebanon in the past three years, with 95% [of them] Syrians. The rest included Iraqis and Sudanese.”
Canada, the United States, Australia and Germany have been the main recipients of asylum seekers although “new countries, mainly in Latin America, have come forward like Chile,” al-Iraqi added.
The resettlement process can take up to two years to be completed, except for in severe “humanitarian cases.”
In 2016, the IOM resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees from the Middle East and Africa to Canada. An additional 1,000 Syrians from Jordan were resettled in Europe and 600 — 47% of them children — from Egypt to Canada.
Jordan is host to approximately 657,000 registered Syrian refugees, the highest per person after Lebanon, which is home to 1.1 million registered refugees. In addition to the Syrians, Jordan has 450,000- 500,000 Iraqi refugees. Turkey remains the largest recipient with more than 3 million Syrian refugees.
Refugees overstaying and the pressure they place on public services, infrastructure and the job market have sparked calls in Lebanon for them to be repatriated. Acknowledging the implications of the refugee crisis, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri called on the international community to ensure their secure and voluntary return.
Lebanon hosts about 450,000 Palestinian refugees who are registered with the United Nations. They began flowing into the country more than 60 years ago.
“Any political process in Syria has to include a solution for the refugees. We cannot have peace in Syria without bringing back between 5 million to 7 million refugees scattered around the world,” Hariri said at a conference hosted by the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
With no sustainable political settlement in sight, the refugees’ suffering is not expected to end soon.