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Scores of Syrian refugees head home from crisis-hit Lebanon

Scores of Syrian refugees head home from crisis-hit Lebanon

BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of Syrian refugees returned home Saturday from eastern Lebanon in the second convoy in less than two weeks as Beirut attempts to stage a mass return of refugees to the war-torn country.

Lebanon’s national news agency said the “voluntary return” on Saturday included 330 Syrians who left from the eastern Beqaa Valley to Syria’s western Qalamoun region. Qalamoun borders Lebanon and witnessed some of the worst fighting in Syria’s 11-year conflict years ago.

On October 26, some 500 refugees returned to Syria, becoming the first group to return home in more than two years.

After living in Lebanon for years, many Syrian refugees decided to return home after being affected by the country’s historic three-year economic crisis which plunged three quarters of the Lebanese into poverty. Since the start of the economic crisis in late 2019, some Lebanese politicians have blamed refugees for the crisis.

Lebanon has hosted more than a million Syrian refugees, but many say the number is much higher. The UN refugee agency registered around 825,000 Syrians but stopped counting them in 2015 at the request of the Lebanese authorities. Earlier this year, officials touted a plan to return 15,000 refugees per monthwhich has so far not materialized.

In 2018, Lebanon began organizing “voluntary return” trips. Syrians would register to return, and then the list would be run by Syrian security officials to see if anyone was wanted for arrest or considered a security threat to Damascus. These names would be rejected and the original list reduced to the final names.

The returnees represent only a tiny fraction of the massive refugee population that remains in Lebanon, as the United Nations argues that Syria is not safe for mass returns.

“The returnees have received guarantees of return from the Lebanese and Syrian authorities,” Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs Hector Hajjar told reporters on Saturday near the Syrian border. He added that the international community should encourage such returns and if not, it “should be neutral in this case”.

Return trips were halted in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. By then, some 21,000 refugees had returned to Syria in this way, according to Lebanese officials. UNHCR says at least 76,500 Syrian refugees have voluntarily returned from Lebanon since 2016, some on government-organized trips and others on their own.

The Syrian conflict that began in March 2011 has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.