11/07/2022, 16.44
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Hundreds of 'voluntary’ repatriations' of Syrian refugees from Lebanon

The second convoy in less than two weeks took at least 330 people from the Bekaa Valley (Lebanon) to the Qalamoun region (Syria). In Lebanon, refugees are hot a issue. The government wants to speed up "mass" returns, but the international community and the UN are putting on the brakes.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Hundreds of Syrians were repatriated from eastern Lebanon over the weekend, as part of Lebanon’s policy of "voluntary returns” to ease the refugee pressure on the country, which is plunged in a deep political and economic morass.

The convoy is the second of its kind in less than two weeks, confirmation that Lebanon is trying to return Syrians who fled en mass the war that has torn their country over the past decade.

Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reports that at least 330 people left the Bekaa Valley, heading for Qalamoun, in western Syria, scene of some of the worst atrocities of the war.

Previously, on 26 October, around 500 Syrian refugees had returned on a voluntary basis, the first to return to their country of origin in the previous two years.

After living in Lebanon for years, many planned to return considering the enormous difficulties Lebanon has experienced in the last period, with almost three quarters of the population living in poverty.

Some Lebanese leaders have tried to blame the refugee issue (Syrians, Palestinians, etc.) for the country’s state of affairs, although the causes are multiple, starting from widespread corruption and the many contradictions that have paralysed the government.

Despite everything, Lebanon has taken in over a million Syrian refugees over the past few years, and the real figure could be much higher.

About 825,000 are officially registered with the UN refugee agency, but the latter stopped counting in 2015 at the request of Lebanese authorities.

Earlier this year, the government proposed a plan to return at least 15,000 refugees a month, which has never been implemented.

Returnees represent only a small fraction of the massive refugee population that remains in Lebanon, not least because the United Nations argues that Syria is still – and rightly so – unsafe for mass returns.

For his part, Lebanon's caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar told reporters near the Syrian border on Saturday that “returnees have received guarantees from the Lebanese and Syrian authorities to return”. In his view, the international community ought to encourage such returns, or at least, “be neutral in this case”.

In 2020, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic brought repatriations to halt. By that time, about 21,000 refugees had returned, a drop in the bucket.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 76,500 Syrian refugees have left Lebanon voluntarily since 2016, some on trips organised by the Lebanese government while others went home on their own initiative.

Syria’s civil war, which began in March 2011, has caused the death of almost half a million people out of a population of 23 million. Overall, it has displaced almost half of the population (in the country or abroad) and devastated the country’s economy.

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