Since December 1, 2019, more than one million people in Syria’s Idlib, mostly women and children, have been displaced by an onslaught of Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Russian and Iranian allies. For perspective, this number is higher than the entire population of San Francisco.
The displaced primarily shelter in makeshift camps on the Turkish border, exposed to the extreme weather of an unusually cold winter. Dozens of people have already frozen to death or died of asphyxiation due to crude, improvised heaters in tents. The images of children frozen in their sleep or in their parents’ embrace are the latest additions to the gallery of haunting reminders of the suffering of Syrians extending over the last nine years.
Despite the extreme conditions of displacement, a large majority of them are not willing to return to a Syria under Assad’s rule or live under Russia-sponsored reconciliation agreements, as seen in a recent snap poll conducted by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD). They are desperate to cross into Turkey and continue toward Europe in search of safety for their children.
Why is it that these desperate people, despite the uncertainty of migration and despite the extreme conditions of displacement, refuse to return to the so-called “liberated” areas under Assad’s control? Understanding the answer to this question is of crucial importance, not only for all of those tasked with responding to the largest humanitarian crisis of our time, but also those involved in seeking long term solutions for the Syrian conflict. It is especially important for European countries and EU decision makers who believe that the solutions for the massive displacement of Syrians are in cash payments to Turkey to block movement to European shores, or in erecting barbed wire fences and militarizing their borders.
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