Many young Syrians who fled the war in their country are unlikely to return and those who would go back said they would do so only after the removal of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the end of the conflict, an ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey stated.
The survey, titled “A Voice for Young Syrian Refugees,” focused on hopes, concerns and aspirations of young Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, where refugees constitute 10% and 25%, respectively, of the local populations.
Polling company PSB Research conducted 400 face-to-face interviews in refugee settlements in Jordan and Lebanon among people 18-24 years old, split equally between men and women. The interviews were completed February 12-March 12.
Asked how likely they are to permanently return to Syria in the future, 54% of survey participants said “unlikely,” while 42% said “likely” and 4% said they did not know.
Given a list of steps that need to be taken before they could return home, 47% chose “the war ends” option as the most important and 25% said the Islamic State (ISIS) leaving Syria. Trailing far behind were “the economic situation improves,” chosen by 8% of respondents, and “(Syrian President) Bashar Assad leaves,” picked by 7%.
Most young refugees said they did not consider Assad leaving office as a prerequisite for reaching a peace agreement. Just more than one-quarter (27%) said they agreed with the statement, “There can be no peace agreement as long as Bashar Assad stays in office” versus 71% who said “ending the fighting is more important than Bashar Assad leaving office.”
Among young Syrians who said they expect to migrate to another country, 27% named Canada as their top pick, while 23% said the United States; the United Arab Emirates and Germany each were chosen by 22%, France was the choice for 14% and the United Kingdom was chosen by 13%.
Asked what can be done to improve their plight as refugees, 56% of participants — and particularly men (67%) — said EU governments could help by accepting more refugees, and 42% said providing financial aid to their host countries would help more. The latter response was made by 52% of the women compared with 32% of men asked.
The interviewees were divided on Russia’s effect on the conflict, with 49% saying it was positive and 46% saying it was negative. Approximately two-thirds of those surveyed said Donald Trump’s US presidency is likely to change the course of the conflict, with 23% saying he could make the situation worse.
On whether ISIS had become stronger or weaker over the past year, 77% of the refugees asked said the militant group had become weaker, a significantly higher percentage than their peers in the overall Middle East, where 61% of participants in the Arab Youth Survey said ISIS was getting weaker.
Sunil John, founder and CEO of Dubai-based ASDA’A Burson- Marsteller, said the firm has been conducting the Arab Youth Survey since 2008. “This is the first time we did a supplementary survey, so that for the first time since the conflict unfolded (in 2011), the voice of young Syrians can be heard,” he said.
“Our experience has been that governments and international agencies follow the results of these surveys and try to incorporate them into their decision- and policymaking.”
John said 60% of the population of the Gulf and Middle East is young and among that demographic those aged 18-24 represent the largest percentage. “Young minds are able to take away the complexities of the issue and focus on what is important,” he said.
Roy Haddad, MENA director of marketing company WPP, said: “Their demands are simple: They need jobs and education. One can see that they have given up on politics. It’s an attitude, one cannot judge whether it is good or bad.”
“We could not cover Syria in our Arab Youth Survey for the past six years so this was a good opportunity to bring in the Syrian voice into the survey,” Haddad said.
More than 6.3 million people have been internally displaced and 4.9 million have been officially registered as refugees since the Syrian war erupted six years ago.
N.P. Krishna Kumar is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Dubai.