When Do Refugees Return Home? Evidence from Syrian Displacement in Mashreq

Lori Beaman, Harun Onder, and Stefanie Onder

World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series, No. 9688 (2021)



This paper analyzes the factors that influenced the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq during an active period of conflict in Syria, from January 2011 to March 2018.

The analysis is based on a novel dataset that incorporates: (a) demographic data along with arrival and return dates (if applicable) for 2.16 million Syrian refugees from UNHCR’s Profile Global Registration System (ProGres) database; (b) data on conditions in host countries from vulnerability surveys conducted by UN agencies in Syria and Lebanon; and (c) conditions in Syria from a conflict-events database and nightlights data for Syria (as a proxy for access to utilities).

Main results:

  • Better security in areas of origin increases the likelihood of return. A one standard deviation improvement in security (measured by the change in the Conflict Events Index (CEI) between the previous two quarters) increases refugee returns by 6 percent.
  • Improved access to utilities, proxied by nightlight luminosity, increases the likelihood of return. A one standard deviation improvement in luminosity in areas of origin increases returns by 3.8 percent. This result indicates 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.
  • The likelihood of return increases with age. A possible explanation is that men aged 18 to 42 are at greater risk of being conscripted by the Syrian army. Additionally, older women are more likely to be unemployed, which could increase their likelihood of return.
  • Refugees act strategically in terms of which family members return to Syria. Men are more likely to return than women, and single refugees are more likely to return than married refugees. Additionally, adult family members (siblings, aunts and uncles) have a much higher likelihood of return than the principal applicant’s spouse. This suggests that individual family members—often single, older men—return to the country of origin first to assess the situation on the ground, while the remainder of the family remains in exile.
  • More food secure refugees are more likely to return, but the magnitude of the effect is small. A one standard deviation increase in food security in Syria increases the likelihood of return by 0.27 percent.
  • Return rates are overwhelmingly higher among refugees with the very lowest level of education. For example, relative to an uneducated adult a university degree reduces likelihood of return by 21 percent and a secondary degree by 19 percent.

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 (e.g., 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 income in the presence of mobility costs.

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