Lugging suitcases, power generators, fridges and chickens, more than 700 Syrian refugees who were living in Lebanon gathered from early morning in a desolate northeastern border zone.
The refugees were returning to Syria on Wednesday under a voluntary programme coordinated by Lebanon’s General Security, the agency responsible for safeguarding the country’s borders.
The programme has raised concerns from rights groups that the scheme may involve elements of coercion, but Lebanese authorities have said the repatriations are voluntary.
But while front lines in Syria’s 11-year war are mostly calm, the United Nations says flare-ups in violence and the risk of detention make it unsafe for large-scale returns.
Lebanon is home to more than 800,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR (the UN refugee agency). They fled the violence in the aftermath of protests against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011. At its peak, Lebanon hosted approximately 1.2 million registered refugees.
In 2018, the General Security agency launched a mechanism through which any Syrian refugee could signal a desire to return home and liaise with Syrian authorities to ensure that individual was not wanted there.
That saw approximately 400,000 Syrians return home but was put on hold with the outbreak of COVID-19. Outgoing Lebanese President Michel Aoun revived it this month, and it resumed on Wednesday.