The trickle of Syrian refugees returning home from Lebanon has risen to a steady flow. About 5,000 of 976,000 UN-registered refugees living in Lebanon have crossed into Syria at five crossings that opened on August 1st, according to a Russian officer in charge of one of the checkpoints.
This week international media covered the arrival of buses filled with refugees who were met by officials, doctors and a promoter offering free sim cards for mobile phones. The publicity generated by this event was intended to show the world community and refugees living abroad that Syrians are going home.
Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad insists repatriation is a top priority for the government and calls for foreign assistance for refugee resettlement and reconstruction, which could cost $250 billion (€218 billion), according to the UN.
Lebanese president Michel Aoun says Russia aims to repatriate 890,000 Syrians living in Lebanon. Moscow and Damascus have set up a refugee centre to facilitate their return and 336,500 places around the country have been prepared to receive returnees. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) argues it is unsafe for refugees to return, the agency helps returnees with documentation.
End of fighting
Syria's public administration minister Hussein Makhlouf says the government has restored 5,000 schools and 250 hospitals across the country. He says that 3½ million of six million internally displaced (IDPs) have returned home; UN estimates put the IDP return figure at 1.45 million over the past two years.
Many IDPs go home once fighting ends and the government, which now controls 61 per cent of Syria’s territory and all major urban areas, begins to restore security and services. Of the 250,000 estimated to have been displaced this summer during fighting in the south, 140,000 have gone home.
Russia has also offered to facilitate the repatriation of 130,000 of the 668,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan by the end of the year. Amman insists their return must be voluntary although they are a burden on the resource-poor kingdom.
The 3½ million Syrian refugees in Turkey are a separate issue. Ankara has settled 39,000 in three towns it occupies in northern Syria while thousands of others have returned to government-controlled areas.
There are major disagreements on the refugee issue. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov contends that conditions exist for their return, and his ministry argues 1.7 million are ready to repatriate. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo argues refugee return must take place only when security is established and with the involvement of UN agencies.
Norwegian Refugee Council chief Jan Egeland argues that 2018 could be the year of Syria’s refugee return and urges the international community to aid those who want to return and those who do not.
Fear of retribution
Repatriation does not simply mean getting on a bus and going home. Although procedures have, reportedly, been simplified and streamlined, refugees need to apply to local security agencies which pass on their requests to the Syrian authorities.
Women, children and men over 45 form the majority of those who receive permission. Men between 18-42 who left to avoid conscription are told army service would be deferred for a year if they return. Those who took part in anti-government demonstrations or joined armed opposition groups fear prosecution.
In Lebanon and Jordan the overwhelming majority of of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line and are struggling to survive. Many go home because of harsh conditions in exile or because they see no future for themselves or their children outside Syria.
Returnees may find their homes destroyed or looted, lands devastated, or property occupied by squatters.