Official figures inflate the numbers of Syrian refugees returned from Lebanon

Illegal forced returns of migrants has been on the rise in Lebanon and Turkey

epa07026638 Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut, before their journey to their homes in Syria at the Sport City in Beirut, Lebanon, 17 September 2018. Around 200 Syrian refugees began their trip home as part of a coordinated operation between authorities in Beirut and Damascus.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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Less than a quarter of the 100,000-plus Syrian refugees that the Lebanese government hoped to see return to their homeland have crossed back, a leading migration expert has told The National.

Dr Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of the Sawa Foundation, which works with refugees in Lebanon, said that numbers used by officials were a gross overestimate of the real flow of Syrians through the border.

Last year Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security, used the figure when he set a target of 100,000 returnees by the end of 2018.

"The General Security is offering security and logistic facilities in addition to financial exemptions to Syrian refugees living illegally in Lebanon to accelerate their return back home," Mr Ibrahim reportedly told the newsite Elnashra.

On Friday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said 390,000 Syrian refugees had returned home from Lebanon, claiming that the refugees did not complain about any sort of pressure they had suffered after their return to their homeland.

Eight years of conflict in Syria has seen more than 1.5 million people seek refuge from the fighting in Lebanon. Ms Mhaissen said that since 2018 there had been a big push by the Lebanese administration on the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland. The United Nations and western countries insist all refugees must volunteer to go back but have also warned that it’s too early for large scale returns.

But the process is ongoing and it has been accompanied by a rise in xenophobic discourse from politicians and some media outlets in Lebanon.

“The political discourse is rising against refugees and there is now this news circulating that the war in Syria is now over, the situation is much better and that Syrians can now return,” Ms Mhaissen said.

Lebanon is struggling to maintain its large population of refugees. After 2011, the country took 1.1 million registered refugees but the government estimated the true number was more like 1.5 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Syria. This is equivalent to 30 per cent of Lebanon's entire population.

They were already hosting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948.

Ms Mhaissen warned, however, her organisation had noted a significant number of illegal deportations of Syrian refugees made by both Lebanon and Turkey, and that they have been on the rise.

A report released by human rights advocates in August said more than 2,700 vulnerable refugees had been deported from Lebanon back to Syria in only three months. Before refugees sent back to their homeland, a court decision needs to be made, but in many of these cases, there was no legal process.

The Sawa Foundation is looking to challenge this idea, which Ms Mhaissen claims many Lebanese politicians push. The organisation is also looking to question the notion of voluntary return of refugees, the majority of which are women and children because men want to avoid forced conscription when they are transported back to Syria. She said that there are multiple factors where the government “pushes” refugees out of the country.

“Talking about Syria as safe is something we are really trying to counter in the media and discourse on refugees. Returns need to not only be safe and voluntary but dignified and sustainable,” she said.

“The Lebanese government has used Syrian refugees as scape goats to blame them on everything, for the strain they put on the infrastructure and they claim that they have even caused cancer or polluting the air – these are all things we've read in the Lebanese newspapers.”

She said she feared that the rising hate speech Lebanese politicians are directing towards refugees might backfire on them and the Sawa Foundation has already seen evidence of this happening.

Ms Mhaissen that there has been a rise in Syrian refugees coming back to Lebanon via illegal means because Beirut has taken away their refugee status.