BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon is working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria, a Lebanese official said on Thursday.
As the Syrian army backed by Iran and Russia has recovered territory, Lebanon’s president and other politicians have called for refugees to go back to “secure areas” before a deal to end the war – at odds with the international view that it is not yet safe.
Lebanon hosts around 1 million registered Syrian refugees according to the United Nations, or roughly a quarter of the population, who have fled the war in neighbouring Syria since 2011. The government puts the number at 1.5 million.
“There are contacts with the Syrian authorities about thousands of Syrians who want to return to Syria,” Major General Abbas Ibrahim, a top Lebanese state figure and the head of the General Security agency, told reporters on Thursday.
“The stay of Syrians in Lebanon will not go on for a long time. There is intensive work by the political authority.”
He did not give a time frame for returns, but suggested at least some would take place soon.
UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, said it was “aware of several return movements of Syrian refugees being planned to Syria”.
“UNHCR is in regular contact with the General Directorate of the General Security on this issue,” it said in an emailed statement in response to a question from Reuters, referring to a Lebanese security agency.
In April, several hundred refugees were bussed back to Syria from the Shebaa area of southern Lebanon in an operation overseen by General Security in coordination with Damascus.
UNHCR, in a statement at the time, said it was not involved in organising “these returns or other returns at this point, considering the prevailing humanitarian and security situation in Syria”.
A conference on Syria hosted by the European Union and co-chaired by the United Nations in April said conditions for returns were not yet fulfilled, and that present conditions were not conducive for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity.
President Michel Aoun has called the crisis an existential danger to Lebanon, reflecting a view that the presence of the mainly Sunni Syrian refugees will upend the balance between Lebanese Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims and other sectarian groups.
Saad al-Hariri, who is prime minister of the outgoing Lebanese government and has been designated to form the next one, has said Lebanon is against forced returns of refugees.
Aoun has said that “many” areas of Syria are now secure, though he has also said the principle of voluntary return must be respected.
Lebanon’s General Security was also setting up 10 special centres where Syrians could legalise their status, Ibrahim said. UNHCR said it was working closely with General Security to equip centres to process “the legal stay of refugees in the country”.
(Reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam and Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams)