Years after fleeing their now-devastated homeland, hundreds of refugees returned from Lebanon to Syria Tuesday in the latest such move coordinated by General Security and Damascus.
General Security announced that 541 Syrian refugees traveled back to their home country by bus Tuesday in what it said was a "voluntary return," adding that the United Nations' refugee agency had been notified of the return.
A UNHCR official on the ground in Nabatieh Tuesday clarified that his agency had not been involved in the organization process, but said there was no reason to believe that the return was involuntary.
According to General Security, the Syrian authorities provided the buses, which departed from Nabatieh, the Bekaa, Shebaa, Tripoli and Burj Hammoud. They were escorted by General Security units until they reached the border at the Masnaa and Abboudieh crossings.
The state-run National News Agency reported that of the 541 returnees, about 200 returned from Tripoli, and 134 -- including 75 children -- left from Nabatieh. Local news channel Al-Jadeed said that 50 of the returnees had gathered in Burj Hammoud to make the journey, marking the first refugee return to be organized from Mount Lebanon.
The official on the ground in Nabatieh, Cameron Rashleigh, head of the UNHCR's field office in Tyre, said the UNHCR "does not encourage or facilitate the return process, because security conditions are unfavorable and unstable in Syria." The organization, he added, was unable to operate in the areas refugees were returning to, and was therefore unable to assess conditions there.
According to the NNA, the Health Ministry, in cooperation with the Lebanese Red Cross, provided nearly 100 of the refugees returning with vaccinations, and most of those who received the vaccines were children.
Around 1 million Syrian refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, though officials estimate their actual numbers to be much higher, at roughly 1.5 million. General Security, the only state body that openly coordinates with the Syrian government, has spearheaded the process of organizing small-scale returns.