A quarter of a million Syrian refugees could return home next year, although many still face problems with documentation and property, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) announced yesterday.
Some 5.6 million Syrians have been forced into neighbouring countries, namely Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, over the past seven years. They also include one million Syrian children born abroad whose foreign birth certificates the Assad government has now agreed to recognise, Amin Awad, UNHCR director for the Middle East and North Africa, said.
"Now, by and large, the war has ended. We have a few pockets [of hostilities], including Idlib, as you know that there is a negotiated ceasefire and a de-escalation zone," Awad told a news briefing.
"As the situation in Syria improves some of these refugees are making the journey home," he said. "We are forecasting, in what we call phase one, up to 250,000 Syrians go back in 2019. That figure can go up and down according to the pace with which we are working and removing these obstacles to return."
However the UN statement also recognised that certain obstacles were deterring refugee return, including property ownership documentation demanded by the Syrian regime, forced conscription and the presence of mines and unexploded devices in civilian areas.
"Then there are issues related to conscription, there are issues related to amnesty for those who deserted the army. These are drivers that would basically keep people away, they are obstacles."
The fear of reprisals by the Syrian regime is also frequently cited by aid groups as one of the main reasons refugees give for not wanting to return home. Amid the breaking down of various reconciliation agreements, regime forces have attempted to further consolidate their control through a campaign of arrests and detentions.
Despite violating the terms of the negotiation deals, hundreds of refugees who have opted to make the precarious journey home, as well as former fighters, have found themselves arbitrarily detained. Even those who were not involved in the fighting, including members of the civil defence unit the White Helmets, have been targeted.
However difficult living conditions abroad have been a key reason persuading many Syrians to make the journey; some 55,000 refugees are believed to have returned to their homes from Lebanon this year, and 28,000 have returned from Jordan since the border between the two Arab countries was reopened last month. Both neighbouring countries have also been accused of neglecting management of the refugee camps in an attempt to encourage refugees to return to Syria.
The UN called on donors to help raise some $5.5 billion to support neighbouring countries in providing health, water, sanitation, food, education, and psycho-social support to Syrian refugees.
"Their living conditions have deteriorated as their existence in exile prolongs. They have been borrowing money, they are indebted and a lot of them are living below the poverty line, 70 to 80 per cent of them are living below the poverty line in their host communities or countries," Awad said. "We are asking donors to stay the course."