The Mobility of Displaced Syrians – An Economic and Social Analysis

World Bank, February 2019


This report analyzes the “mobility calculus” of Syrian refugees through: (a) a review of international experience to identify push/pull factors; (b) an assessment of the conditions faced by Syrians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq as they relate to these push/pull factors; (c) an analysis of the voluntary return of approximately 100,000 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2018 in order to identify the relative importance of push/pull factors; (d) simulations and a scenario-based approach to project how these factors might play out in the future. Key messages:

  • Refugee return is not a monotonic or linear event: it often includes an iterative, staggered, or cyclical process. Adverse conditions can lead to unconventional coping strategies, e.g. dispersal of family members between exile and return locations, and circular movements. Refugees act rationally, facing a set of constraints, to ensure the wellbeing of themselves and their families.
  • International experience suggests four groups of factors influence refugee mobility: (i) peace, security and protection; (ii) livelihood and economic opportunities; (iii) housing, land and property; and (iv) infrastructure and access to services. These factors play out differently across refugee situations and across individuals. While formal peace agreements can provide the impetus for large-scale refugee returns, spontaneous returns to conflict-affected places are not uncommon. Poverty in the country of asylum may be a driver of return but the opposite may also be true, e.g. refugees with higher socio-economic status may have a greater propensity to return earlier than socio-economic groups impoverished by displacement. Returning refugees do not necessarily return to their places of origin, even with reintegration assistance—refugees from rural origins increasingly return to cities and there may be sizable secondary displacement of returning refugees. Return entails new hardships and additional challenges for women.
  • Most Syrians face persistent hardships inside and outside of Syria. Insecurity is the primary concern among refugees regarding potential future returns. Countries of asylum provide better access to services and livelihood opportunities than in conflict-intensive regions of Syria, but this is not always true for other regions. Most refugees face a tradeoff between security and other aspects of quality of life, which often takes an intergenerational form: short-term security comes at the expense of lower human capital accumulation that will disproportionately affect Syrian children and youth. Syrian women face additional challenges.
  • Returns to date have been small-scale and selective due to persistent concerns about insecurity in Syria. Refugees who are single, or male, or not members of a nuclear family have been more likely to return. Conditions in Syria have predictable and monotonous effects on the return of refugees, i.e. better security and service access in Syria consistently increase returns. Host country conditions affect returns in more complex ways: a lower quality of life in exile does not always increase returns (e.g. more education increases return at primary education level but not at secondary or tertiary education levels). Surveys detected a complex nexus of human-psyche and economic factors: refugees do not embrace financial issues in discussing mobility, but those issues still matter. The future mobility of Syrian refugees could be different from their past mobility.
  • Simulations confirm the importance of security and service provision for mobility in the future. Service restoration is more effective in mobilizing refugees when security is less of an issue. The international community has a diversified policy toolkit to help refugees, their hosts, and the Syrians in Syria, including subsidies (return assistance), transfers (on a per capita basis within Syria), and service restoration in Syria. The simulations suggest that: (1) “corner solutions” (using all resources through one tool only) are inefficient because the problems addressed by these tools reinforce each other; (2) policies should be used in an adaptive manner, shaped by conditions on the ground, e.g. insecurity in Syria is a major deterrent to return and reduces the effectiveness of service restoration efforts, therefore with improvements in security, more resources can effectively be allocated to restoring services; and (3) the policy objective should be to maximize the welfare of refugees, including those who return and who do not return, of their hosts, and of Syrians—not to maximize refugee returns.

The report does not deal with issues pertaining to security-sector and cultural, ethical, and political dimensions of the conflict. Additionally, due to data constraints, it excludes a study of displaced Syrians in Syria, Turkey, and Europe.