The Dynamics of Refugee Return: Syrian Refugees and Their Migration Intentions

Ala’ Alrababa’h, Daniel Masterson, Marine Casalis, Dominik Hangartner, and Jeremy Weinstein

British Journal of Political Science (2023), Pages 1 – 24


This paper examines the factors that shape aspirations to return home for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are subject to a range of hardships, restrictions, and barriers to integration, including difficulties associated with obtaining a residence permit, which is required to access health and education services, and restrictions on the right to work.

Building on the “push” and “pull” framework for international migration, the authors hypothesized that refugees’ decisions about return are shaped by four main factors: (1) conditions in the host country; (2) conditions in the country of origin; (3) the costs of movement; and (4) the quality of information about the costs and benefits of return.

The analysis is based on several sources of data gathered in 2019, including: (a) cross-sectional survey data from a nationally representative sample of about 3,000 Syrian refugee households in Lebanon, covering return intentions and preparations to return in the short and long term; (b) a conjoint experiment to isolate the causal effect of conditions in Syria and Lebanon on return intentions (respondents are presented several hypothetical vignettes and asked whether, under these conditions, they would return to Syria); (c) semi-structured interviews with Syrians living in Lebanon; and (d) a survey of almost 1,300 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Main results:

  • Conditions in a refugee’s home country are the main drivers of return intentions. Safety in Syria, economic prospects in Syria, the availability of public services in one’s hometown, and respondents’ family and friend networks in Syria are positively and significantly associated with return intentions. Even in the face of hostility and poor living conditions in host countries, refugees are unlikely to return unless the situation at home improves significantly. Despite their protracted displacement and limited prospects to return in the short term, refugees generally want to return home when the situation improves in their home country.
  • Conditions in the host country have little effect on refugees’ aspirations to return. Conditions in Lebanon do not substantially shape return intentions, even though many Syrians experience extremely challenging living situations. Social wellbeing is the only variable that has a statistically significant association with return intentions. Higher levels of economic wellbeing, networks, and social wellbeing in Lebanon has a positive correlation with taking steps to prepare to return to Syria, suggesting that migration capacity plays a role in return decisions.
  • No relationship is found between mobility costs and return intentions.
  • Confidence in information about one’s hometown is positively associated with both intentions and preparations. The relationship between conditions in Syria and return intentions and preparations is shaped by respondents’ confidence in their information sources.
  • The main findings from the conjoint experiment are consistent with the analysis of observational data; on average, conditions in Syria play a more important role in shaping people’s return intentions than conditions in Lebanon. Safety is the strongest driver of return intentions—security in one’s hometown increases return intentions by 35 percentage points and nationwide security increases return intentions by 42 percentage points. An end to military conscription increases the likelihood of return by 18 percentage points. The availability of jobs and public services in Syria both increase return intentions by 8 percentage points. The presence of family and friends in Syria increases return intentions by 5 percentage points. Access to a good job in Lebanon reduces return intentions by 2 percent and access to public services in Lebanon reduces return intentions by 3 percent.
  • The drivers of return intentions in Jordan are similar to Lebanon. Conditions in respondents’ place of origin in Syria (safety, economic prospects, and public services) and the presence of family and friends in Syria are positively correlated with return intentions. Conditions in Jordan and information quality do not appear to shape return intentions.

These results challenge the conventional view that refugees make return decisions by evaluating whether they can do better at home than in their host country. The authors propose an alternative model of threshold-based decision making; only once a basic threshold of safety at home is met do refugees compare other factors in the host and home country. Qualitative data from structured interviews with a separate sample of Syrian refugees in Lebanon support the proposition that people are waiting for the security and safety situation in Syria to improve before returning.