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Hundreds of Syrian refugees head home as anti-refugee sentiment surges in Lebanon

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ARSAL, Lebanon (AP) — More than 300 Syrian refugees headed back home to Syria in a convoy on Tuesday, leaving two remote northeastern towns in crisis-stricken Lebanon where anti-refugee sentiment has been surging in recent months.

Lebanese officials have long urged the international community to either resettle the refugees in other countries or help them return to Syria. Over the past months, leading Lebanese political parties have become increasingly vocal, demanding that Syrian refugees go back.

A country of about 6 million people, Lebanon hosts nearly 780,000 registered Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands who are unregistered — the world’s highest refugee population per capita.

In the northeastern town of Arsal, Syrian refugees piled their belongings onto the back of trucks and cars on Tuesday as Lebanese security officers collected their U.N. refugee agency cards and other paperwork before clearing them to leave.

As the trucks pulled away, the refugees waved to friends and relatives staying behind, heading to an uncertain future in Syria.

Ahmad al-Rifai, on his way to the Qalamoun Mountains after over a decade in Lebanon, said that whatever the situation was in Syria, “it’s better to live in a house than in a tent.”

Lebanese security forces this year stepped up deportations of Syrians, although nowhere near the level threatened two years ago when the Lebanese government announced a plan to deport some 15,000 Syrians every month, to what they dubbed “ safe areas,” in cooperation with the government in Damascus.

Tuesday’s convoy from the mountainous towns of Arsal and Qaa consisted of only 330 refugees who had signed up for repatriation, the first such “voluntary return” return organized by Lebanese security forces since late 2022.

“Nobody can not be happy to return to their home,” Ahmad Durro told The Associated Press while waiting in his truck. “I signed up a year ago to be in the convoy.”

But many other Syrians — especially young men facing compulsory military service or political opponents of the government of President Bashar Assad — say it’s unsafe to return.

Others see no future in Syria, where in many parts the fighting may have died down but an economic crisis has pulled millions into poverty.

An increasing number of refugees in Lebanon have taken to the sea in an attempt to reach Europe.

The UNHCR has said it only supports voluntary returns of Syrians based on informed consent. Yet, major human rights organizations remain skeptical of the voluntary nature of these returns amid anti-refugee hostility in Lebanon.

“Syrian refugees are, targeted by both geo sources and host communities. They are subjected to violence, insults and other degrading treatment,” Amnesty International’s deputy Middle East and North Africa Regional Director Aya Majzoub told the AP, also decrying curfews and other restrictions imposed on refugees by a handful of Lebanese municipalities.

“So our assessment is that in these conditions, it is very difficult for refugees to make free and informed decisions about returning to Syria.”

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have documented cases of refugees detained and tortured by Syrian security agencies upon their return.

The UNHCR says nine out of 10 Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty and need humanitarian aid to survive. That aid has declined amid donor fatigue and as international attention shifted to other crises.

Many increasingly impoverished Lebanese have accused Syrian refugees of benefitting from the aid while beating Lebanese to jobs by accepting lower pay. Lebanon’s ruling political parties and leadership claim that most Syrians living in the tiny Mediterranean country are economic migrants rather than refugees escaping the war at home, now in its 13th year. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, a top ally of Assad, has made such an allegation.

“They have dollars and they are sending those dollars to relatives in Syria,” Nasrallah said in a speech on Monday.

Lebanese security agents have in the past weeks raided shops and other businesses employing undocumented Syrian workers, and shut them down.

The European Union this month announced an aid package worth 1 billion euros — about $1.06 billion — of which about 200 million euros would go to security and border control, in an apparent bid to curb migration from Lebanon to Cyprus, Italy, and other parts of Europe.

While Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati welcomed the aid, other officials described it as a bribe for tiny Lebanon to keep the refugees.

Parliament is to discuss the EU package on Wednesday, with lawmakers from the entire political spectrum expected to ramp up anti-refugee sentiment and call for more refugee returns and crackdowns.

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Chehayeb reported from Beirut.

By FADI TAWIL and KAREEM CHEHAYEB
Associated Press

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