As President Bashar Al Assad tightens his grip on Syria after eight years of war, Lebanon has been strongly encouraging Syrians who fled there to return home.
As a result, returns have increased in the past few months but restricted access to returnees means that it remains unclear whether going home is safe for Syrians.
Both Lebanon and Syria benefit from these returns. The former because it struggles to cope with roughly 1.5 million Syrians on its soil, and the latter because it wants to show the world that the country is safe again under the rule of the Assad family.
Syrian state media report that returnees express joy on their arrival and look forward to going back to hometowns now cleared of “terrorists”, a term the government uses to describe all opposition groups.
On the other hand, pro-opposition media have reported detentions and arbitrary killings, which have discouraged many Syrians from going home.
Complicating matters further, most refugees are wary about speaking to journalists once they return to Syria. Many give fake phone numbers or simply refuse to stay in contact.
Two Syrian women in Lebanon who The National has spoken over recent months have claimed that their relatives were killed in Syria by pro-government militias known as shabiha, but their accounts were sometimes inconsistent and difficult to verify. Both women refused to have their names published, fearing that the regime would retaliate against family members in Syria.
The lack of proof means that Lebanese authorities, and particularly those pushing for refugees to return, dismiss the stories as pro-opposition propaganda.
Figures are also hotly disputed. Lebanon's General Security Directorate, which organises returns, announced in early November that it had helped 80,000 Syrians to go back home since July, in addition to 7,670 “spontaneous returns”. The Lebanese Minister of State for Refugee Affairs, Mouin Merehbi, a long-time critic of the Syrian regime, has dismissed these figures, saying they were exaggerated with the intention of encouraging refugees to return.
UNHCR, which is not yet organising returns to Syria, said it was still checking figures. The UN refugee agency has been present at more than 70 group returns facilitated by General Security this year, involving a total of 9,895 people. In addition to this, UNHCR said it was aware of 4,996 spontaneous returns, though there may be more. That is a total of roughly 15,000 returnees.
"General Security being the agency handling entry and exit procedures, they have more information than we at UNHCR can capture. We are in the process of comparing lists," Mireille Girard, the agency's representative in Lebanon, told The National.
Mysa Khalaf, public information officer at UNHCR in Syria, said the agency had witnessed people returning to various parts of the country such as Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, but could not confirm whether they were safe or not.
“UNHCR always tries to reach out to people in need of assistance, but security and logistical challenges remain, and continuous unhindered access for the UN is still not in place to all areas in Syria. So it is difficult for UNHCR to ensure comprehensive assessment of the situation in all locations," she wrote in an email.
One 20-year-old woman who returned to Damascus in the past few weeks complained about the high cost of living and lack of work opportunities. "Even if you find work, salaries are not high enough to live on. I'm not happy at all. I can't get used to the atmosphere here," she told The National. Like many Syrians who fled to Lebanon as children, she had fallen behind in her studies and is currently studying for an exam, the "brevet", that is normally taken by 15-year-olds.
After three months of unemployment in Lebanon, her father decided it was time for the family to go back to Syria. Her mother, who said their family home was in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, was reluctant. "My house was destroyed by fighting and we are not allowed back in the area. We'll have to rent a flat in Damascus, like we did in Beirut. Why not just stay here?" she told The National on the day of the family's departure from a Beirut suburb.
However, returnees rarely complain openly to journalists. Two men contacted by The National on Facebook's messaging service kept the conversation short.
“The situation is great," wrote a young man who said he was now a Syrian soldier. “Long live Bashar Al Assad and Russia," he repeated several times.
When The National met him a few days before he left a refugee camp near the Lebanese border town of Arsal, he and his brothers said they hoped to be allowed a grace period of six months to a year before being drafted into the army.
Asked when he had been called up, the young man said he did not remember and ended the interview.
A similarly awkward conversation was held with another returnee who also expressed support for the regime several times. “The situation in Aleppo is very good. I’ll go back to my old work selling clothes soon," he wrote. He did not answer further questions about his current living conditions.
Before leaving, he said his brother had been imprisoned in Tartous for the past four years, but that he did not know why. He insisted his family was not part of the opposition to Mr Al Assad.
Foreign journalists who witnessed refugees arrivals on the Syrian side of the border have noticed a similar reluctance to talk. In a report for the French newspaper Le Figaro in August, Emmanuel Grynszpan described them as cautious and tight-lipped. "Syrian refugees must embrace the cult of Bashar Al Assad as soon as they cross the border," he wrote.
The number of returnees so far is a fraction of the 5.6 million Syrian refugees scattered across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
However, Russia has been increasing pressure on Europe to help finance a massive return of refugees that would go hand in hand with rebuilding Syria. Should this move forward, the conditions of their return will come under increasing scrutiny.