Talks about returning Syrian refugees from Lebanon to Syria have been intensively heard during the last period. This kind or return takes place under the name “voluntary and safe return” that the Lebanese authorities started in 2017 in batches. In late October the Lebanese Government announce resuming returning Syrian to their country, after stopping due to Covid-19 pandemic inm 2020.
In the past two months, two Syrian refugees’ batches left Lebanon to Syria, in implementation of the plan that both caretaker government in Lebanon and Syrian regime have agreed upon. This happens amid fears and warnings by human rights organization that the Syrian regime might commit violations against the Syrian returnees.
The issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a controversial issue that arouses the concerns of both international and local community.
The displacement that has been going on for more than 11 years due to the Syrian war interacts with the severe economic and social crisis that hit the Lebanon two years ago, so that the extreme poverty rate among refugees has risen to more than 90%. % While about 82% of the Lebanese are living below the poverty line.
Mechanism of Returning Syrians
Observers believe that there is a state of ambiguity surrounding the Lebanese government’s work with regard to the issue of “voluntary” return of Syrian refugees. Despite the announcement of some “reassuring” steps for the refugees, there is a lack of transparency, especially in the mechanisms for checking on the Syrians who have returned.
The return of the Syrian refugee from Lebanon according to the approved mechanism begins with the refugee submitting an application in this regard at registration centers throughout Lebanon, under the supervision and coordination of the General Directorate of Lebanese General Security, a human rights source who preferred not to be revealed told MENA Research and Study Centre. These centers prepare nominal lists of the numbers of those who intend to be returned, provided that one day is set for that return, and Damascus sends buses to transport them to Syria.
It is remarkable – according to the source – that the Lebanese General Security did not adopt the method it used to follow 3 years ago in notifying only those whose names were approved for crossing the Lebanese-Syrian borders, but the new formula is based on informing the refugee that he has a security- Judicial prosecution, without specifying its details.
According to the website of the Lebanese General Security, applications for those wishing to return to Syria are submitted to one of the 18 centers affiliated with the Directorate, which were recently opened all over Lebanon to receive these applications. These centers are distributed as follows: Beirut (Beirut Centre), Mount Lebanon (Haret Sakher, Bourj Hammoud, Beiteddine, Damour), the North (Tripoli, Koura), Akkar (Al-Abdah, Halba, Al-Baqi’a), the South (Saida), Nabatiyeh (Nabatieh, Shebaa), Bekaa (Zahle, Jeb Jenin), Baalbek Hermel (Baalbek, Arsal, Labweh).
When the refugee leaves Lebanon, a stamp prohibiting entry to Lebanon is placed on their passports with a clear and explicit approval at the General Security offices at the Lebanese borders, without knowing the expiration date of that prohibition, according to the source.
On the other hand, “enthusiastic” Lebanese media sources are promoting the move to return the Syrians, with the idea that the Director General of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, obtained from the Syrian side “formal undertakings not to harm the returnees,” and they say that Major General Ibrahim agreed with the Syrian side on the details of the logistical arrangements, including postponing the request of those returning to compulsory military service for 6 months. In addition, Syrian and Lebanese authorities will exempt returnees from customs duties on items such as phones, solar panel equipment, and household items, while refugees who wish to return with their cars, must have legal papers for cars in Lebanon or Syria.
Preparations in Syria
Despite the talk that Syria is preparing to receive refugees through reception centers, medical equipment, and so on, there is no indication that this will be implemented on the ground.
According to information obtained by the MENA, the returning refugees were transferred to several modest centers, the largest of which is the Rural Development Center in the town of Ras al-Ayn in the Yabroud district in the Damascus countryside, and from there a few families moved to their homes in the eastern Qalamoun, while the rest of the families are still residing in those centers as their homes were damaged in the fighting.
Most of these returnees come from Syrian cities and rural areas, whose infrastructure was partially or completely destroyed by the war, and most of them lack basic services and necessities of life, including health and educational centers.
Observers believe that the talks of returning 15,000 refugees per month from Lebanon to Syria is a fantasy, given that the country is experiencing a suffocating economic crisis and an unprecedented deterioration in the reality of living.
Number of Returnees
As mentioned above, the Lebanese authorities resumed the plan to return the displaced Syrians on October 26th. The first batch included about 750 refugees, however, only 511 refugees returned at that time.
Most of the returnees in this batch are children and women who live in camps in the Arsal region, and they are from the villages and towns of “Fleita, Al-Jarajeer, Al-Mushrifeh, Al-Nabek, Deir Attia” in the countryside of Damascus.
While the second batch, on November 5, included 330 Syrians who left the Bekaa Valley to the Qalamoun region in western Syria.
According to Wusool Center for Human Rights (ACHR), two returnees of the second batch have been arrested by the political investigation center in the area of An-Nabek. One of whom was released after paying a bribe, while the second is still detained.
About 1.5 million Syrians reside in Lebanon, constituting about a third of the country’s population, 900,000 of whom are registered with the High Commissioner for Refugees and distributed over various Lebanese territories, especially in the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon. Many of them lack identity papers, which prevents them from returning to their country, while the others are classified as workers who do not have refugee status.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHR) says that at least 76,500 Syrian refugees have returned voluntarily from Lebanon since 2016, some on trips organized by the government and others on their own, while the Lebanese government claims that 540,000 Syrians have been returned to Syria within the framework of voluntary return in past years.
Human rights activists warn of the possibility of a mass migration to Europe if Lebanon insists on implementing the plan to return them to Syria in an uncoordinated manner with the international community, and without providing an appropriate security and economic environment.
All publishing rights and copyrights reserved to MENA Research and Study Center.