This paper analyzes the factors that influenced the early, voluntary, and unassisted return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq during a period of active conflict in Syria, between January 2011 and March 2018.
The analysis is based on a novel dataset that includes: (a) demographic data, arrival and return dates (if applicable) for two million Syrian refugees from UNHCR’s Profile Global Registration System (ProGres) database; (b) data on living conditions in Jordan and Lebanon from vulnerability surveys conducted by UN agencies; and (c) conditions in Syria from a conflict-events database and nightlights data for Syria
- Returnee household tend to be smaller than non-returnee households, and the returnee population has a lower proportion of children (under age 15) and a higher proportion of seniors (over 55) compared to the non-returnee population. Returnees also tend to have lower educational attainment compared to non-returnees.
- In some refugee households, return decisions are staggered with an individual member returning, while others remain in exile. 63 percent of households returned together at one time, while 37 percent of households returned in stages (one or more individuals returned first, who were then followed by some or all remaining household members).
- Better security in a refugee’s home district in Syria increases the likelihood of return. A one standard deviation improvement in security (measured by the change in the Conflict Events Index between the previous two quarters) increases refugee returns by 6 percent.
- Improved access to utilities in a refugee’s home sub-district in Syria, proxied by nightlight luminosity, increases the likelihood of return. A one standard deviation improvement in luminosity increases returns by 2 percent. This result suggests that quality of life is a factor in refugees’ decisions to return home even in the presence of ongoing conflict in the country of origin.
- Refugees with better food security and housing conditions in host countries are more likely to return. The authors suggest that as their incomes rise, more refugees are better able to afford the logistical costs associated with returning to Syria.
Overall, these results suggest that an increase in risk-adjusted payoffs from return (delivered by better security and living conditions in locations of origin) tends to increase returns. However, improvements in payoffs (such as food security) in host countries appear to increase returns. The authors posit that an increase in income in exile can trigger return for those with low incomes in the presence of mobility costs.