Scores of Syrian refugees head home from crisis-hit Lebanon amid fears of coerced returns

Scores of Syrian refugees head home from crisis-hit Lebanon amid fears of coerced returns
Rights groups have expressed concern over the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, saying that they face persecution at the hands of the Assad regime.
3 min read
05 November, 2022
The UNHCR says at least 76,500 Syrian refugees returned from Lebanon since 2016 [Getty images]

Scores of Syrian refugees headed home Saturday from eastern Lebanon in the second convoy in less than two weeks as Beirut attempts to organize a mass refugee return to the war-torn country.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said the “voluntary return” on Saturday included 330 Syrians who left from the eastern Bekaa Valley to Syria’s western Qalamoun region. Qalamoun, which borders Lebanon, has witnessed some of the worst fighting of Syria’s 11-year conflict.

On October 26, some 500 refugees returned to Syria, becoming the first group to officially be returned home in more than two years.

It if not clear if the most recent returns schemes include refugees forced to return to Syria. 

Rights groups fear the programme may not be as voluntary as it purports to be, at a time when concerns are growing about a policy of coercion they say is already in force in Turkey, where 3.6 million Syrians who have fled their country are registered.

They point out that Syrian refugees who have returned to their country have faced arrest, torture, and even execution at the hands of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After living in Lebanon for years, some Syrian refugees have been forced to consider returning home after being affected by the country’s historic three-year economic meltdown that pushed three-quarters of Lebanese into poverty. Since the economic crisis began in late 2019, some Lebanese politicians have blamed the refugees for the crisis.

Lebanon has given shelter to more than 1 million Syrian refugees but many claim the number is far higher. The UN refugee agency has registered about 825,000 Syrians but stopped counting them in 2015 at the request of Lebanese authorities. Earlier this year, officials touted a plan to return 15,000 refugees a month, which has so far failed to materialize.

The returnees represent just a tiny fraction of the massive population of refugees who remain in Lebanon as the United Nations maintains that Syria is not safe for mass returns.

“The returnees have received guarantees from the Lebanese and Syrian authorities to return,” Lebanon’s caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar told reporters near the Syrian border on Saturday. He added that the international community should encourage such returns and if not then they “should be neutral in this case.”

The trips back were halted in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. At that point, some 21,000 refugees had returned to Syria this way, according to Lebanese officials. UNHCR says at least 76,500 Syrian refugees returned voluntarily from Lebanon since 2016, some in government-organized trips and some on their own.

Syria’s conflict that began in March 2011 has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million. Most of the casualties have been due to indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas and facilities by the Assad regime.