Lebanon to begin returning refugees to Syria ‘in batches’

Presidency says return of refugees to Syria to start next week, despite objections by rights groups.

President Michel Aoun has said Lebanon will soon begin sending Syrian refugees back to their home country, despite concerns by rights groups over their safety.

“As of next week, we will see the start of returning Syrians to their home country in batches,” the Lebanese presidency said in a Twitter post on Wednesday, without providing further details.

Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. The government estimated that the country’s population of more than six million includes roughly 1.5 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, though well under one million are registered with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. In its September report (PDF), the UN’s Syria commission said the country “is still not a safe place to return”.

An official source told the Reuters news agency the returns would only include those who had voluntarily signed up to go back with Lebanon’s General Security agency, in coordination with the country’s social affairs ministry, and would not be forced to leave.

Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s minister for displaced people, in July announced a plan that he said would seek to return some 15,000 refugees to Syria per month, basing his move on a claim that the country had become largely safe after more than a decade of war.

The plan would not involve the UNHCR, which maintains that conditions in Syria do not allow for the large-scale return of refugees.

Lebanese officials say the influx of refugees has cost the crisis-hit country billions of dollars and further damaged its crippled infrastructure while it struggles with a financial meltdown.

‘Grave human rights abuses’

The UNHCR has in the past opposed involuntary repatriation of refugees to Syria, and warned that the practice risks endangering the lives of those returning.

Currently, UNHCR is “not facilitating or promoting the large-scale voluntary repatriation of refugees to Syria”, Paula Barrachina, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera.

“Nonetheless, thousands of refugees choose to exercise their right to return each year. UNHCR supports and calls for respect of refugees’ fundamental human right to freely and voluntarily return to their country of origin at a time of their choosing,” Barrachina said, adding that the body will continue to “engage in dialogue with the Lebanese Government”.

New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) had also said at the time 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,” Lama Fakih, director of HRW’s Middle East Division, wrote in a post.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a sweeping amnesty earlier this year for a range of crimes which said it includes those committed by Syrians who fled their country during the 11-year conflict.

Syrian authorities have also said they have eased measures for those who have fled their compulsory military service, a major push factor for young men fleeing Syria, including to Lebanon.

But rights groups and diplomats have warned that those guarantees are not sufficient.

Since late 2019, poverty has worsened for both Lebanese and Syrians in Lebanon as the country continues to struggle with a crippling economic crisis.

Last month, dozens of Lebanese and Syrian migrants were stranded for days on a sinking fishing boat in the Mediterranean Sea. At least 94 of them died after the boat capsized off the Syrian port of Tartous, some 50km (30 miles) north of Tripoli in Lebanon.

Those on board resorted to using dangerous boat journeys in search of a better life.

Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for European Union member Cyprus, an island about 175km (110 miles) to the west.

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