Hundreds of Syrian refugees have left the remote Lebanese mountain town of Arsal in a convoy of trucks headed for the northern border on the first day of a controversial repatriation scheme.
Lebanese authorities say 751 Syrian refugees began returning to Syria on Wednesday under a voluntary programme coordinated by Lebanon’s General Security, the agency responsible for safeguarding the country’s borders.
Syria has been devastated by a civil war that started in 2011 following an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Much of the country remains in ruins, with power stations, schools and water services ravaged by the conflict.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Arsal, said the returnees were being handled by Lebanese authorities without the cooperation of the United Nations or other human rights groups.
“There is a lot of uncertainty, people here say they don’t know what they are returning to,” Khodr said.
Rights groups have expressed concerns that the scheme may contain elements of coercion and result in reprisals.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), among others, has documented cases where returnees faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and kidnappings.
The majority of those interviewed by HRW also struggled to survive and meet their basic needs in Syria.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun had announced earlier this month that Beirut would soon begin sending Syrian refugees back to their home country “in batches”.
HRW Lebanon researcher Aja Majzoub reacted to Aoun’s announcement on Twitter saying that “any forced returns of refugees to Syria would amount to a breach of Lebanon’s refoulement obligations”.
“Syria is not safe for returns,” she said.
Any forced returns of refugees to #Syria would amount to a breach of #Lebanon’s refoulement obligations not to forcibly return people to countries where they face a clear risk of torture or other persecution. Syria is not safe for returns. https://t.co/FKlJ1jxUYS
— Aya Majzoub (@Aya_Majzoub) October 12, 2022
The returnees represent a tiny fraction of the large population of roughly 1.5 million refugees who remain in Lebanon.
While crossing the border into Syria has previously been unthinkable for the majority, a financial meltdown in Lebanon that has plunged hundreds of thousands into poverty has left them facing an unenviable choice.
Omar al-Borraqi, one of the returnees leaving Arsal on Wednesday, said after nine years in Lebanon, emotional and financial factors had played a role in his decision.
“There were so many reasons that we didn’t go back [earlier],” he said as he sat in a truck preparing to return to his hometown near Damascus. “Now God has made it easier for us.”
While the UN maintains that conditions in Syria do not allow for the large-scale return of refugees, Lebanese officials say the influx of refugees has cost the crisis-hit country billions of dollars and further damaged its crippled infrastructure.
Protesters across Lebanon have blamed the political class for driving the country to bankruptcy through embezzlement and money laundering schemes.