Following a two-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new group of refugees returned to Syria from neighbouring Lebanon on October 26, as part of what Lebanese authorities called a “voluntary and safe return” plan. The second convoy of returnees made the crossing on November 05, despite criticism from humanitarian organisations, which have warned of potential rights violations against returnees.
The Lebanese government began implementing a “voluntary and safe refugee return” plan in 2017 for Syrian refugees wishing to go home. Refugees could register their names with the Lebanese General Security, which, in turn, would be shared with Syrian security services. The security services would review the names and accept or reject their return request. However, there have been multiple cases of returnees facing arrest even after obtaining security approval to return home.
On October 27, Lebanon’s General Security Directorate said in a statement that it had coordinated with UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, to secure the “voluntary” repatriation of 511 Syrian refugees from various parts of Lebanon, of a total 751 refugees who had been slated to return. According to a correspondent for The Syria Report, some of the 751 refugees had received security clearance to return, but on the condition that they subsequently visit a Syrian security branch. This prompted them to stay in Lebanon instead, fearing they could be in danger if they went home.
According to Lebanese General Security, 12 refugees returned through Al-Masnaa border crossing, 12 through Al-Aboudiyeh border crossing, and another 487 through the Wadi Hmeid-Arsal-Al-Zamrani border crossings.
Lebanon’s Al-Masnaa border crossing sits just opposite Syria’s Jdeidat Yabous border crossing in the Rural Damascus governorate. Al-Aboudiyeh is opposite the Syrian Al-Dabousiyeh crossing in Homs. These two points are official land crossings between the neighbouring countries. Only a small number of returnees travelled back to Syria through these two official crossings, heading to Homs city and the suburbs of Damascus, The Syria Report’s correspondent indicated.
Meanwhile, in the Lebanese region of Arsal, which sits across the border from Rural Damascus’ Al-Nabak area, there are several informal border crossings, such as Wadi Hmeid. These names are unofficial, and the rugged mountain roads that span them are usually used for smuggling people and goods across both sides of the border. ِThere is also ِthe Al-Zamrani semi-official crossing border, controlled by Shia militia Hezbollah on the Lebanese side and by Fourth Division forces on the Syrian side.
In a statement via radio, the governor of Rural Damascus said that 90 percent of the recent returnees were from the city of Al-Nabak and the nearby towns of Qareh and Al-Jarajeer. He added that the governorate had prepared some logistics for the refugees’ return, providing ambulances and mobile clinics and securing shelter centres.
According to The Syria Report’s correspondent, Syrian authorities are working to gather those who have returned via the informal crossings into shelter centres in Ras Al-Ayn, Yabroud and Al-Sahel. Some of these centres are currently undergoing expansion, with provisions of tents, water tanks and other necessities. Returnees residing in these centres must resettle their security statuses with the Syrian regime before they are permitted to return to their real homes. It is unclear how long the returnees will be made to stay in the centres amid reports that some have already managed to return to their hometowns.
Most of the people who have so far returned home from Lebanon are women, children and the elderly, as young men fear forced military conscription upon their return or being prosecuted for any pro-opposition activities. According to some activists, at least one person from the first round of returnees was arrested following their crossing back into Syria. The person was reportedly transferred to Damascus.
Contacting the returnees is difficult, as many of them fear providing any information–especially those currently living in the shelter centres, according to sources who spoke with The Syria Report.
Still, the second round of returnees crossed into Syria from the Arsal camps via the Al-Zamrani Crossing on November 05 and included around 300 people.
The current Lebanese plan is to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees per month until all the Syrian refugees in Lebanon have departed. According to Lebanese General Security statements, some 540,000 refugees have returned home from Lebanon since the plan began, while 2,080,000 remain in Lebanon. However, humanitarian groups have said that the actual number of returnees is much lower and have documented cases of forced refoulement. A report last month by Amnesty International said that international law is against the refoulement of Syrian refugees from Lebanon and that voluntary return should be based on free and informed consent.
A recent article in Syria’s state-run newspaper Al-Baath stated that the returnees are a human resource. They can work, produce and engage in the economy as an active workforce in all sectors, particularly after many young Syrians continue to emigrate. The newspaper added that the government must provide all humanitarian and material needs for the returnees, such as housing and infrastructure, especially in areas that suffered wartime damage and currently cannot absorb returning residents. The government must also work to reintegrate the returnees into their social surroundings and safe medical care, education and social protection for them, especially for returning families without breadwinners, or families headed by women, the newspaper added.