In remote villages across the Lebanese Bekaa region, Syrian refugees are packing their belongings and getting ready to return home. Starting Wednesday, and as part of Lebanon’s “voluntary return” plan, hundreds of refugees have returned to Syria.
Syrians Returning to Devastated Country, Escaping Economic Meltdown in Lebanon (Zaman al-Wasl)
Many boarding the convoy in Arsal said Lebanon’s unprecedented economic meltdown had pushed them to make the journey. With spiralling inflation and the cost of basic necessities like food and heating fuel soaring, nine out of 10 Syrian refugees in Lebanon now live in extreme poverty.
Some are now returning to a country devastated by a civil war that started in 2011, killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million. However, the returnees represent just a tiny fraction of the massive population of refugees who remain in Lebanon, as the United Nations maintains that Syria is not safe for mass returns.
Lebanese officials said more than 2,400 refugees had registered for Wednesday’s return, but only 1,700 were given the green light by Syrian authorities to return. Many others who were approved ultimately decided not to go.
The final list had 750 names, officials said Tuesday. On the other side of the border, Syrian state media said ambulances were waiting with medicine and food packages.
One of those heading back was Khalil al-Qadi, 41, with his family of six, heading to their hometown of Jarjir in the Damascus countryside.
“We can’t enroll our kids in school here,” al-Qadi said about Lebanon. “The economic situation doesn’t allow us to provide for them.”
Since Lebanon’s meltdown began a few years ago, Lebanese politicians have frequently blamed refugees for the economic woes. Earlier this year, officials touted a plan to return 15,000 refugees a month, failing to materialize.
In 2018, Lebanon began organizing “voluntary return” trips. Syrians would register to go back, then the list would be run by Syrian security officials to see if anyone on it was wanted for arrest or deemed a security threat to Damascus. Those names would be rejected, and the original list would be whittled down to the final names.
The trips back were halted in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. At that point, some 21,000 refugees had returned to Syria this way, according to Lebanese officials. UNHCR says at least 76,500 Syrian refugees have returned voluntarily from Lebanon since 2016, some on government-organized trips and some on their own.
Both international organizations and the refugees have remained circumspect about the conditions for return. Reports by human rights organizations have cited cases of returning refugees being disappeared, detained and tortured — allegations Ibrahim insists are unfounded.
Syrian officials have also accused the West of fearmongering. At a meeting of Russian and Syrian officials last week to discuss the refugee issue, Syrian minister Ayman Sousan lashed out, saying the West is obstructing refugee returns and using “the suffering of the displaced” for political purposes.
UNHCR said it was “not facilitating or promoting the large-scale voluntary repatriation of refugees to Syria” and that its role in the returns is limited to “reaching out and counselling refugees, when possible, and being present at the departure points” before they leave.
Lebanon ‘Cuts Internet to Syrian Refugees’ (Al-Araby al-Jadeed)
Lebanese security forces have reportedly deprived Syrian refugees of access to the internet by confiscating phones and routers, a human rights organization said on Tuesday.
In a report published on its website, the SMEX organization, which specializes in digital rights in Lebanon and the Arab World, said Lebanese security forces stormed camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley between 10 and 14 October, seizing televisions, radios, and satellite dishes, as well as mobile phones and routers.
“I have a small, old television set. I have to hide it all the time in case they take it,” Abu Abdu, a refugee living in a camp in the western Bekaa area, told SMEX.
“They came and took and smashed up everything,” he said.
SMEX said that this was an attempt to cut off Syrian refugees from communication with the outside world but did not know why Lebanese authorities had taken this action.
The news came as Lebanon deported dozens of Syrian refugees to Syria as the first part of a “repatriation” plan. Rights groups have condemned the move, pointing out that refugees forced to return to Syria could face arrest, detention, and torture at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
SMEX said it had received a recording of a man warning refugees “in a threatening voice” that possession of internet connection equipment was prohibited and saying this “was an order from Lebanese intelligence”.
The human rights group added that a source in the Lebanese security forces denied that any equipment was confiscated from refugees.
A Syrian media activist living as a refugee in Lebanon, who preferred to remain anonymous, told SMEX that the confiscations had been ongoing for the past four months in the Western Bekaa, Zahleh, and Barr Elias areas.
He said there were 13 reported incidents.
“The security forces confiscated and destroyed anything which could be a means of communication with the world outside the camp. They also destroyed solar panels and violently beat refugees,” he said.
There are around 800,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with the UNHCR, although the Lebanese government gives a much higher estimate of 2 million refugees living in the country.
They have suffered increasing discrimination and racism, including violent attacks, with some politicians and public figures blaming them for Lebanon’s continued economic crisis.