BEIRUT (AP) – Scores of Syrian refugees headed home Saturday from eastern Lebanon in the second convoy in less than two weeks as Beirut attempts to organize a mass refugee return to the country.
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said the voluntary return Saturday included 330 Syrians who left from the eastern Bekaa Valley to Syria’s western Qalamoun region. Qalamoun borders Lebanon and years ago witnessed some of the worst fighting of Syria’s foreign-backed war.
On Oct. 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 have decided to go back home after being affected by the country’s historic three-year economic meltdown that pushed three-quarters of Lebanese into poverty.
Lebanon has given shelter to more than 1 million Syrian refugees but many claim the number is far higher. The UN refugee agency has registered about 825,000 Syrians but stopped counting them in 2015 at the request of Lebanese authorities. Earlier this year, officials touted a plan to return 15,000 refugees a month, which has so far failed to materialize.
In 2018, Lebanon began organizing voluntary return trips.
The returnees represent just a tiny fraction of the massive population of refugees who remain in Lebanon.
“The returnees have received guarantees from the Lebanese and Syrian authorities to return,” Lebanon’s caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar told reporters near the Syrian border on Saturday. He added that the international community should encourage such returns and if not then they “should be neutral in this case.”
The trips back were halted in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. At that point, some 21,000 refugees had returned to Syria this way, according to Lebanese officials. UNHCR says at least 76,500 Syrian refugees returned voluntarily from Lebanon since 2016, some in government-organized trips and some on their own.
Syria’s conflict that began in March 2011 has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.