Lebanon will start sending Syrian refugees back to their home country at the end of next week, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Wednesday, despite rights groups' fears for their safety.
Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. The government estimates that the country's population of over 6 million includes roughly 1.5 million refugees from neighboring Syria, though well under 1 million are registered with the UNHCR.
An official source said that the returns would only include those who had voluntarily signed up to go back with Lebanon's General Security agency, in coordination with the country's social affairs ministry, and would not be forced to leave.
General Security and social affairs ministry officials did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Lebanon's minister for displaced people, Issam Charafeddine, in July announced a plan that he said would seek to return some 15,000 refugees to Syria per month, basing his move on a claim that Syria had become largely safe after more than a decade of war.
The plan would not involve the UNHCR, which maintains that conditions in Syria do not allow for the large-scale return of refugees.
The UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in July that "Syria is anything but safe for returnees".
"Syrian refugees who returned between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias," Lama Fakih, director of HRW's Middle East Division, wrote in a post.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a sweeping amnesty earlier this year for a range of crimes which says it includes those committed by Syrians who fled their country during the 11-year conflict.
Syrian authorities have also said they have eased measures for those who have fled their compulsory military service, a major push factor for young men fleeing Syria, including to Lebanon.
But rights groups and diplomats have warned that those guarantees are not sufficient.
In its September report, the United Nations' Syria commission said the country was still not safe for returnees.