Hundreds of Syrian refugees have started to leave Lebanon for Syria despite concerns by rights groups that they are at risk of torture and sexual violence, and arbitrary detention upon return.
The state-facilitated initiative between Damascus and Beirut on Wednesday saw the first group of around 700 people cross over the border to their home country.
Despite fleeing civil war, sectarian violence and the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, migrants are forced to endure increasing hardships in Lebanon. Rights organisations have raised concerns that people are being coerced into returning to Syria.
Syrian state news agency, SANA, reported the arrival of the first group of refugees from Lebanon. “A batch of Syrians displaced citizens arrived at the al-Dabousiyah border- crossing point coming from refugee camps in Lebanon to return to their safe and liberated areas,” it said.
The migrants gathered at the crossing carrying household items like fridges, power generators and big suitcases.
The controversial initiative started in 2018 and was designed to reduce the number of refugees in the small country, which hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrians, the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita.
Amnesty International has called on Beirut to stop the “so-called voluntary returns of Syrian refugees.”
Nearly 7 million Syrians have fled the country since civil war erupted in 2011.
“In enthusiastically facilitating these returns, the Lebanese authorities are knowingly putting Syrian refugees at risk of suffering from heinous abuse and persecution upon their return to Syria,” Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Acting Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.
Syrian refugees always endured significant abuse in Lebanon, stoked by Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian regime, which is one of the main stakeholders in Lebanon. But now in the midst of a worsening economic meltdown, thousands are left with little option but to take the immense risk and return home.
The repatriation programme, which its organisers claim it is “voluntary and safe," aims to reduce the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The government in Beirut claims it had managed to facilitate the return of 485,000 Syrians over the last four years before the programme was paused during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the UNHCR has only recorded 71,000 voluntary returns since 2016.
The mechanism of the returnees is to register names with the Lebanese General Security that cross-check the names of the “volunteers” with the Syrian regime in Damascus to check that the people willing to return are not wanted by the government.
The forcible return of Syrian refugees has been a long-standing issue, as politicians in host countries have blamed refugees for recent economic difficulties. Turkey is also expected to pick the pace to send more refugees back to rebel-held areas in Syria ahead of the 2023 presidential elections.
Amnesty International blamed the Lebanese government for leaving refugees with little option but return to Syria. “It is well established that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not in a position to take a free and informed decision about their return due to restrictive government policies on movement and residency, rampant discrimination, lack of access to essential services as well as unavailability of objective and updated information about the current human rights situation in Syria,” Semaan added.