Coming Home to Syria – Centre's Dialogue Panel Identifies Glimmer of Hope in a Shadow Zone of Poverty, Pure Survival and Outstanding Civil Courage

The dialogue panel was framed around the question under which circumstances a return of Syrian citizens into their country could be sustainable, a question that was triggered by polls that show a majority of refugees wishes to return as soon as circumstances allow for it. Rana Khoury, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, contributed that this is so not only in Europe but also in Jordan, where only about 10% want to stay, notwithstanding the remarkable fact that the majority of refugees there – as well as in Lebanon and Turkey – are living in urban areas and not in camps.

In Syria at present, whereas 25% of the population lives in devastated zones, 85% of the total population are living under the poverty line. 'Poor people settling in the homes of other poor people', says Samuel Rizk, country director of Syria with the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who gave a precise sketch of the dilemma, any assistance towards reconstruction and development faces in the present situation.

It was clear and kind of consensual around the table that the political situation will remain unpredictable and already during five years of war the country lost decades on its development path by any means. Returnees would may be not recognize their country again, Prof. Bernhard Trautner suspected, a development specialist from the German Development Institute in Bonn (DIE), who's search for parallels in German history was less successful than his remarkable plea for an inclusion of partners 'that were responsible for the escalation' into a reconstruction framework.

How this could be accomplished was broadly debated also with the audience that contributed thoughtful aspects to the discussion. Even experienced actors have to give up wishful thinking here while working on the ground. NGOs and faith-based organizations that contribute largely and with knowledge of the region turn from charity donations to targeted support and emergency activities. Samuel Rizk exemplified the monetary aspect and explained that it needs about 20 Dollar a month to safe an individual living in the home country while the administrative costs for any refugee in Europe is about 600 € monthly and the return to the country another 1000 €. This argument triggered critique from the audience since it seems to cement people in a hopeless sub-proletariat without any socio-economic perspective. At the same time German development agencies already acquire young professionals for leadership education in preparation of projects that will try to give reconstruction a more friendly face. Humanitarian aid at this very moment, as it seems, must come first but will, if there is any development at all, increasingly be replaced by investment strategies, in services and infrastructure of all sorts.

Faten Ghosn, a Senior Fellow at the Centre and a Professor of International Relations at the University of Arizona, who conceptualized this event, considered the situation in Lebanon vis-à-vis the present situation in Syria. Obviously a strong identification of citizens with Syria as a social and cultural heritage is quite developed, as she observes and she hinted even at options referring to the then implemented Lebanon Adoption Plan that for a certain time allowed non-state actors like NGOs and enterprises to bypass the central government to launch development projects, often in cooperation with local partners. 

But the wish to promote uncompromised action is difficult to sustain. Even if structures are built, who will maintain them? The diplomatic strategy of a 'biased mediation', including aggressors in the conflict and working the peacebuilding out with them, might well have its counterpart in a sort of 'biased reconstruction' where partners with difficult pasts have to be included in one way or the other.

Michael Backfisch, Senior Political Editor of Funke Media Group, who moderated the panel with a good sense for priorities and journalistic expertise in the region, realistically put the conclusion of the evening talk this way: 'Glimmers of hope notwithstanding, we are way far from reconstruction, not to mention a peace treaty'.

The 7th Käte Hamburger Dialogue that was part of 38th Duisburger Akzente was organized jointly by the Centre for Global Cooperation Research and the Volkshochschule Duisburg.