Following their father’s death and their mother’s remarriage, the grandparents are looking after their eight grandchildren. They fled the violence in ISIS-controlled areas and arrived in a camp in Hasakeh on November 23. Photo: NRC.

Will 2018 be the year of return to Syria?

NRC's Secretary General Jan Egeland|Published 12. Feb 2018

Today, in government buildings across Europe and the Middle East, officials debate policies that would return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-ravaged land. Displaced families sit in refugee tents weighing up the risk of returning home, too; the burden weighing heavier on their shoulders.

This op-ed was first published by Al Jazeera . Read it here.

Government officials would be unwise to make hasty or reckless decisions from the safety and detachment of their faraway offices, without consulting the very people who endanger their lives by returning. Not doing so would risk another series of misguided policies that will lead to more suffering and conflict for Syria.

The brutal seven-year war has taken a colossal toll on human lives. It has displaced half the country's prewar population. More than six million people are displaced inside Syria. Another five million are refugees in neighbouring nations, a million of which have fled to Europe.

When my organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaks with refugees, a clear majority tell us they don't want to go to Europe or the US. Nor do they wish to stay in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey - countries who generously opened their borders to host them. They want to go home. This year, many of them likely will.

However, many parts of Syria continue to be torn apart by conflict. Fierce fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib recently forced a quarter of a million people to flee. This is on top of a million people already displaced inside the province. Further south, in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the misery of 400,000 starved Syrians has spiked to an unimaginable level.

Both warzones are among four "de-escalation areas" that were meant to see less violence, more aid and the eventual return of displaced communities. Instead, they have witnessed only death and destruction.

Elsewhere in Syria, suffering is taking place with less global attention. In regions retaken from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2017, civilians returning home are killed by explosives on a daily basis. On top of that, the movement of these civilians, and that of aid organisations, is often curtailed and restricted.

While many Syrians did return home last year, a far greater number fled. For every internally displaced Syrian who returned, three were newly displaced. The figures for refugees are equally stark. Some 66,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2017, but neighbouring countries closed their borders to about 300,000 people trying to escape the war. Among those who did return, evidence indicates some degree of force was involved. Other families returned after losing hope that their deteriorating existence as refugees would ever improve.

Much of the Syria that refugees fled, has since been reduced to rubble. About one-third of all homes and schools, and about half of all medical facilities, have been damaged or destroyed in the conflict. The cost of rebuilding will be as high as $180bn, according to the World Bank. Before any money can be spent, however, complicated political agreements first need to be made between conflict parties and between external donors, to provide the security and investment conditions needed.

Preparing the ground for Syrians to return home must be done carefully. This is where aid organisations can help. For example, many children born during the war do not have legal papers to prove their nationality and risk becoming stateless. In addition, many families who lost deeds to land and property cannot prove they own the homes they want to return to. We can provide legal aid to Syrians who lost, or do not have these civil documents as a result of the conflict, which affects their ability to return.

This year, 2018, can be the year that parties to this conflict finally agree on a better future for Syria. But until they do, equal attention should be given to refugees wishing to stay and wait for peace, as to those who will return. Donors and powers have committed to improving the situation for refugees in neighbouring countries - it is high time they honoured those promises. Excessive focus on returning Syrians home cannot justify the rigid closed-door refugee policy of wealthy countries.

A basic principle of international law is that refugees should only return home in a voluntary, safe and dignified way. As humanitarians, we pledge to listen, assist and monitor such voluntary return. We also pledge to the civilians we serve, to fight any decisions that will lead to rushed and involuntary returns.

We need to sit down with politicians and diplomats in Europe and the Middle East before it is too late and agree on how best to assist and protect Syrians. Too many fatal decisions have been made over their heads by others, but ultimately suffered by them.