ARSAL, Lebanon: Hundreds of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon returned home on Wednesday, the first day of repatriations organised by Beirut, amid concerns from rights groups that the scheme may involve elements of coercion.
Lugging suitcases, power generators, fridges and even chickens, around 700 Syrians who had agreed to cross over gathered from early morning in a desolate northeastern border zone.
Lebanese authorities say the repatriations, under a revived programme run coordinated by the country’s General Security agency, are voluntary.
But while frontlines in Syria’s 11-year war are largely becalmed, the United Nations says flare-ups in violence and the risk of detention make it still unsafe for large-scale returns.
Lebanon is home to more than 800,000 Syrians registered with the UN refugee agency. They fled the violence in the aftermath of protests against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in 2011. At its peak, Lebanon hosted around 1.2 million.
In 2018, the General Security agency launched a mechanism through which any Syrian refugee could signal a desire to return home, liaise with Syrian authorities to make sure that individual was not wanted there.
That pathway saw around 400,000 Syrians return home but was put on hold with the outbreak of COVID-19. Outgoing Lebanese President Michel Aoun revived it this month and it resumed on Wednesday.
Much of Syria remains in ruins, with private homes and public infrastructure, including power and water services, devastated.
Amnesty International had warned that returning refugees may not have accurate or complete information on the level of risk in their hometowns, meaning the returns may not be “free and informed.”