Syrians in Lebanon will start returning to their home country in batches from next week, Lebanon's President Michel Aoun said on Wednesday.
Lebanon, which is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the civil war, hosts more than a million Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict since 2011. Calls for them to return home have increased during the three-year financial crisis in Lebanon.
"The accomplishment of the [maritime border with Israel] agreement will be followed, starting next week, by the beginning of the return of Syrian refugees to their country in batches," the Lebanese president said on Twitter.
In July, caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine announced a plan to repatriate Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon with the aim of returning “15,000 displaced people per month,” indicating that the ministry would form committees with various authorities to achieve that goal.
The plan sparked criticism from human rights groups.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and rights groups oppose involuntary repatriation to Syria because it is prohibited under international law by the 1951 Refugee Convention and they say it risks endangering the returning refugees.
At least one million Syrian refugees reside under tight restrictions in Lebanon.
Municipal curfews are often enforced, restricting when refugees can leave their homes, and army raids on informal refugee settlements are not uncommon. The process of applying for residency is also difficult and costly for most refugees. They risk arrest or deportation if they are caught with expired residency status, thus severely hindering their freedom of movement.
According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), only 20 per cent of all Syrian refugees above 15 years hold a valid residence permit.
Rights groups say these restrictions create pressure on refugees to leave.
In a report published in July, Human Rights Watch called the repatriation plan "alarming" and a "breach of Lebanon’s international obligations."
"Any forced returns of refugees to Syria would amount to a breach of Lebanon’s refoulement obligations not to forcibly return people to countries where they face a clear risk of torture or other persecution," said Human Rights Watch Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub. "Syria is not safe for returns."
Few Syrian refugees have returned home since President Bashar Al Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, regained control of much of the country for fear of reprisals. Rights groups have documented dozens of cases of returning refugees being conscripted, arrested or disappeared.
Over the past year, hundreds of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians have fled Lebanon by boat to Europe in the hope of a better life.