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Dozens of Syrian refugees head home from crisis-stricken Lebanon

BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of Syrian refugees headed home from eastern Lebanon on Saturday in the second convoy in less than two weeks as Beirut attempts to stage a mass return of refugees to the war-torn country.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said the “voluntary return” on Saturday included 330 Syrians departing from the eastern Bekaa Valley to the western Qalamoun region of Syria. Qalamoun borders Lebanon and witnessed some of the worst fighting of the 11-year conflict in Syria years ago.

On October 26, some 500 refugees returned to Syria, making them the first group to return home in more than two years.

After living in Lebanon for years, many Syrian refugees have decided to return home after being hit by the country’s historic three-year economic collapse that drove three-quarters of Lebanese into poverty. Since the economic crisis started in late 2019, some Lebanese politicians have blamed refugees for the crisis.

Lebanon has hosted more than 1 million Syrian refugees, but many claim the number is much higher. The UN refugee agency has registered about 825,000 Syrians, but stopped counting them in 2015 at the request of the Lebanese authorities. Earlier this year, officials touted a plan to return 15,000 refugees a month, which has so far failed.

In 2018, Lebanon started organizing “voluntary return” trips. Syrians would register to go back, after which the list would be administered by Syrian security officials to see if anyone on the list was wanted for arrest or considered a security threat to Damascus. Those names would be rejected and the original list would be reduced to final names.

The returnees represent only a small fraction of the huge population of refugees left behind in Lebanon, as the United Nations insists Syria is not safe for mass returns.

“The returnees have received guarantees from the Lebanese and Syrian authorities to return,” Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar told reporters near the Syrian border on Saturday. He added that the international community should encourage such returns and if not, they should be neutral in this case.

Return journeys were halted in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Lebanese officials, some 21,000 refugees had returned to Syria in this way at the time. UNHCR says at least 76,500 Syrian refugees have returned voluntarily from Lebanon since 2016, some in government-organized tours and some alone.

The conflict in Syria that began in March 2011 has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half of the pre-war population of 23 million.

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