image File: Reuters

Lebanon to send refugees back to Syria

The move comes amid concerns of human rights activists that it is still too soon for the displaced people to return to the war-torn country.

By Erin Viner

Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced that Syrian refugees will be returned to the neighboring state as early as the end of this week.

There are more refugees per capita in Lebanon than anywhere else in the world. The government estimates that at about 1.5 million Syrians are part of the overall population of over 6 million.

The repatriation will be voluntary and based on a mechanism first used in 2018, said Lebanon’s General Security Directorate intelligence agency, responsible for securing land, maritime and air borders throughout the Arab Republic.

“General Security will pick back up on the return plan for Syrian refugees who would like to go back,”  Agency head Major General Abbas Ibrahim told the Reuters news service, explaining that the mechanism had been paused due to outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

A plan unveiled last July by Lebanon’s Minister for Displaced People Issam Charafeddine detailed the pace of relocation at about 15,000 refugees a month; basing his move on a claim that Syria has largely become safe after more than a decade of war.

The United Nations, however, believes conditions in Syria are still too dangerous for former residents to return home; with such findings by the world body’s Syria Commission published just last month.

The Lebanon branch of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also gone on the record saying it will neither be “facilitating or promoting the large-scale voluntary repatriation of refugees to Syria.” During previous rounds of returns, the UNHCR served in a protective capacity by maintaining a presence at departure points and providing counselling services.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) advocacy group also dissented with Minister Charafeddine’s plan last summer, by stressing that “Syria is anything but safe for returnees.”

“Syrian refugees who returned between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias,” HRW Middle East Division Director Lama Fakih said in a written statement.

Damascus authorities deny that any of the returning refugees have faced torture or reprisal, with Syrian President Bashar al Assad going so far as to charge that millions of his former citizens were being intimidated to remain in host countries that benefit from international aid received on their behalf.

Assad issued a sweeping amnesty earlier this year for a ‘range of crimes’ committed by Syrians who fled the country during the 11-year conflict; which regime officials claim includes lightened penalties for the evasion of compulsory military service – seen as a significant reason many young men left the country.

Rights groups and diplomats have nevertheless warned that such statements are insufficient to guarantee the well-being of the returnees.

According to just-published UNHCR data, there are currently 5,589,360 total registered Syrian refugees.

A vast 64.9% majority of 3,629,807 of the displaced Syrians are in Turkey, followed by 14.9% (831,053) in Lebanon, 12.1% (676,606) in Jordan, 4.7% (265.384) in Iraq, 2.6% (144,768) in Egypt, and 0.7% (41,742) in North Africa.