Around 3,000 refugees are waiting for Lebanon’s government to give them permission to return to Syria, in what would represent the most formal coordination of refugee returns between the two countries to date.
Until now, Lebanon's government has largely maintained an official policy of neutrality on the issue of returns while insisting that refugees must not stay permanently but they had avoided dealing directly with the Syrian government on the issue. The change comes as some Lebanese leaders have sharpened their rhetoric toward the international community, accusing it of conspiring to permanently settle Syrians in Lebanon.
Nearly 1 million Syrians are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, but officials say the number of Syrian refugees in the country is as high as 1.5 million.
Members of a committee of Lebanese and Syrians in the northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal that helped put together a list of names for the return have told The National that the Syrian Ministry of Reconciliation had approved those included and that they were waiting for Lebanon's General Security agency to approve it as well.
Khalid Abdel Aziz, a member of the committee who has been in Lebanon for five years, said they expected it would be approved in the coming weeks.
“We will go back within a month,” he said from the windswept border town.
General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim has helped facilitate previous returns and has been involved with this one from the beginning, the committee members said.
A spokesman for General Security told The National on Monday that the agency had also played a role in the return of 500 Syrians from Shebaa Farms area in south Lebanon earlier this year. The spokesman said he was not able to confirm the status of the current negotiations, or whether General Security was dealing directly with the Syrian government.
Mr Ibrahim is well known as a savvy negotiator and has a wide network of contacts that has seen him play a key role in numerous difficult discussions including hostage negotiations with the Syrian government, militant groups and hard-line Palestinian militias in Lebanon’s numerous refugee camps.
Arsal has a population of about 37,000 Lebanese and around the same number of refugees, the majority of whom are living in informal tented settlements. Many have been in Lebanon for five years or longer.
The 3,000 who intend to return want to head to Flita, a village just over the Syrian border from Arsal. But for the majority of other Syrians in Lebanon, return remains a non-starter due to continued instability, fighting, fear of government retribution or conscription into the army.
Mr Abdel Aziz also accused the UNHCR of seeking to prevent refugee returns, echoing a charge made by Lebanese foreign minister Gibran Bassil last week. Mr Bassil threatened last week to block residency permits for UNHCR employees in retaliation for what he has characterized as the groups’ “policy of intimidation” toward Syrians planning to return.
Mr Bassil had previously criticized UNHCR, but the direct threat of action sparked responses from other Lebanese leaders. Some accused him of escalating his attacks on UNHCR to divert attention from other political domestic issues, while others questioned whether he had the authority to take such a step.
In a series of tweets in recent day's, Mr Bassil has warned about impending but largely unspecified threats against UNHCR, saying "Our actions against the UNHCR will start tomorrow and will be escalating to the maximum extent that Lebanon can do in the face of an organization that is working against its policy of preventing resettlement and achieving the return of the displaced to their land."
The cabinet in which Mr Bassil currently serves as foreign minister assumed caretaker status last month to oversee day to day issues until a new government is formed in the coming weeks or months after a general election but it isn’t meant to take significant decisions without consensus.
This he doesn't appear to have given that advisers to prime minister-designate Saad Hariri have blasted Mr Bassil's comments as an overstep of his authority.
The foreign ministry also doesn’t usually handle work permits, which comes under the labour ministry and General Security.
A spokesman for Mr Bassil’s foreign ministry said she had no further information about the issue on Monday.
UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said that the interviews UNHCR had conducted with refugees from Arsal who want to return to Syria are “a standard procedure we do everywhere in the world before refugees return to their countries”.
“We sit with refugees who have an intention to return and see if they have any questions and try to verify they have the information and documents they need to enable them to establish their lives back home,” she said. “It’s not to change their minds.”
UNHCR was largely unable to conduct interviews with Syrians who left Arsal last year. But Abou Khalid pointed out that when UNHCR conducted interviews the Shebaa Farms group earlier this year, all had gone back to Syria anyway.
Despite accusing UNHCR of attempting to scare refugees from returning, Mr Abdel Aziz echoed what Abou Khaled said about the Shebaa Farms returns.
“No one has changed their minds” after talking to UNHCR, Mr Abdel Aziz said.
Mr Abdel Aziz said the economic pressures of living in Lebanon had prompted many to return.
“We can’t afford healthcare,” Mr Abdel Aziz said.
Over the weekend, a committee of the refugees seeking to return released a letter following Mr Bassil’s comments. “We deny what is being said… [about UNHCR] pressuring and intimidating or terrifying people who belong to the return campaign. This is absolutely not true. …[UNHCR] strongly affirmed every time we met them that they have neither forbade nor encouraged the Syrians to return to their homeland,” the letter said.
The letter added that UN officials had been helping speed up the process of obtaining copies of official documents such as birth certificates and marriage licenses to assist resettlement back in Syria.
The return still represents only a fraction of the refugees around Arsal, notwithstanding the rest of Lebanon. Most refugees here want to go back, but still feel they cannot.
A UN survey taken last year found that while 90 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon want to return to Syria but the vast majority still feel it is still too unstable.
“This is an experiment,” Mr Abdel Aziz said. “It if is successful, I think many more people will want to go back.”
Mr Al Hujairi, the mayor of Arsal, said that those returning, in this case, felt their destination was safe. “Nobody forced them to go,” he said.
Nearly 10,000 Syrians returned to Syria in groups from Aarsal and the surrounding area last year after an offensive against ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham led by Hezbollah in the rugged mountainous area around Lebanon's Arsal and Syria's Flita.
Many of those went to Idlib, and Human Rights Watch and other groups raised concerns that Syrians leaving Lebanon felt compelled to do so because of pressure from Lebanese security forces, rather than because they felt it was safe to return to Syria.