Syrian refugees in Lebanon reluctant to return home

Only about 18,000 refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon in the past 18 months.
Thursday 01/11/2018
Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut to return to their homes in Syria, on September 4. (AFP)
Few options. Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut to return to their homes in Syria, on September 4. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Despite a growing sense of feeling unwelcome, difficult living conditions and the end of fighting in many areas across Syria, most Syrian refugees in Lebanon want to go back to their home country but are reluctant to return to Syria in the immediate future given the uncertain conditions.

Only about 18,000 refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon in the past 18 months, either individually or in group repatriation facilitated by Lebanon's General Directorate of General Security.

Other than the actual end of fighting, security and safety, issues such as waiver of conscription in the army, recovery of their property and access to the state’s services are key factors cited by refugees to feel confident to return, said Karolina Billing, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deputy representative in Lebanon.

“Surveys conducted at the end of 2016 and in 2017 showed that the overwhelming majority of refugees, 89%, wish is to return to Syria,” Billing said, “but they need reassurances that their return will be sustainable: for example that men will not be conscripted and sent out to fight and that they will be able to get their legal documents and register themselves back home and live as full-fledged citizens.”

“No one is expecting to return to a completely reconstructed and perfect Syria. They know they will be returning to difficult conditions,” Billing added.

Although the socio-economic vulnerability of the refugees in Lebanon has been steadily increasing since they fled their country, the number of returnees remains small compared to the overall refugee population.

Despite UN concerns that much of Syria is unsafe, General Security has been facilitating the repatriations in coordination with the Syrian government. Those wishing to return sign up with the organisation, which clears their name with Syrian authorities, processes their exit formalities and organises transportation.

Some, however, do not get clearance and may never be able to return because of their background.

While many refugees say they were returning voluntarily, others were quoted as saying that living conditions in Lebanon had become so bad they had no choice but to leave. Still others expressed anxiety over returning to a country ravaged by seven-and-a-half years of war.

Billing said UNHCR was coordinating with the General Security and informed of return movements although it has not been involved in organising them. “UNHCR’s role here is to answer refugees’ questions before they depart and to make sure that they have their documents in hand such as birth and death certificates,” she said.

“Our colleagues in Syria also try to visit the people in their areas of return. But the follow up on the returnees’ (safe) reintegration is limited as UNHCR doesn’t have unrestricted access to all areas in Syria. This is a key reason why UNHCR cannot yet organise the repatriations.”

Many Lebanese consider the refugees as a burden on their country and politicians have been ramping up rhetoric on the subject with some claiming that many areas in Syria are safe and that there is no reason for the refugees to stay.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has accused the international community of planning to permanently resettle large numbers of Syrians in Lebanon, a fear that stems from the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon for decades.

Authorities have been relaxing regulations that have traditionally been barriers to return to encourage more Syrians to go home. The Lebanese government has also said it would forgive unpaid residency fees for those not registered with UNHCR and for those who entered Lebanon illegally. Syrian refugees living in Lebanon not registered with UNHCR must pay $200 to the government each year and have a Lebanese sponsor to maintain legal residency, a requirement that is out of reach for many.

Today 970,000 Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR. At its peak the number was 1,192,137 in 2015 but Lebanese officials estimate their real number at no less than 1.5 million.

“The absolute majority of refugees are still here and the needs are still great,” Billing said, stressing that UNHCR assistance to refugees and to Lebanon has not been reduced but readjusted to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

“At present, UNHCR is very much focused on trying to help find long-term solutions for the refugees’ situation. For Lebanon, local integration and permanent stay [are] not an option, so the solutions are resettlement to third countries or voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity,” Billing said.

“The majority of refugees want to go back; we have to make that possible.”

In other countries hosting Syrian refugees, 36,056 have returned from Turkey, 1,064 returned from Egypt, 17,149 from Jordan and 24,341 from Iraq, UNHCR said.