Carrying suitcases, power generators, refrigerators and chickens, more than 700 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon have gathered since dawn in a desolate northeastern border area.
The refugees were returning to Syria on Wednesday under a voluntary program coordinated by Lebanon’s General Security, the agency responsible for safeguarding the country’s borders.
The program has raised concerns from human rights groups that the scheme may involve elements of coercion, but Lebanese authorities have said the repatriations are voluntary.
But while the front lines in Syria’s 11-year war are mostly calm, the United Nations says flare-ups of violence and the risk of arrest make it unsafe for large-scale returns.
Lebanon hosts more than 800,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR (the UN refugee agency). They fled violence following protests against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011. At its height, Lebanon hosted an estimated 1.2 million registered refugees.
In 2018, the General Security agency launched a mechanism through which any Syrian refugee could express their desire to return home and establish contact with the Syrian authorities to ensure that person would not be wanted there.
That saw an estimated 400,000 Syrians return home, but was put on hold with the COVID-19 outbreak. Outgoing Lebanese President Michel Aoun revived it this month and it resumed on Wednesday.
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