Lebanon to resume sending refugees back to war-damaged Syria

BEIRUT, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Lebanon will start sending Syrian refugees back home at the end of next week, President Michel Aoun said on Wednesday, in a process a security official described as voluntary, despite rights groups' fears for their safety.

Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. The government estimates that the country's population of over 6 million includes roughly 1.5 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, though well under 1 million are registered with the UNHCR.

The head of Lebanon's General Security agency, which is responsible for the country's borders, said the returns would be voluntary and based on a mechanism first used in 2018.

"General Security will pick back up on the return plan for Syrian refugees who would like to go back," Abbas Ibrahim told Reuters, adding that the mechanism had been paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An official source said that the returns would only include those who had voluntarily signed up to go back with Lebanon's General Security agency, in coordination with the country's social affairs ministry, and refugees would not be forced to leave.

Lebanon's minister for displaced people, Issam Charafeddine, in July announced a plan that he said would seek to return some 15,000 refugees to Syria per month, basing his move on a claim that Syria had become largely safe after more than a decade of war.

The plan would not involve the United Nations, which maintains that conditions in Syria do not allow for the large-scale return of refugees.

The Lebanon office of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said it was "not facilitating or promoting the large-scale voluntary repatriation of refugees to Syria."

In the previous rounds of returns, UNHCR had exercised a protection role, providing counselling and being present at departure points.

New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in July that "Syria is anything but safe for returnees".

"Syrian refugees who returned between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias," Lama Fakih, director of HRW's Middle East Division, wrote in a post.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a sweeping amnesty earlier this year for a range of crimes which says it includes those committed by Syrians who fled their country during the 11-year conflict.

Syrian authorities have also said they have eased measures for those who have fled compulsory military service, a major push factor for young men fleeing Syria, including to Lebanon.

But rights groups and diplomats have warned that those guarantees are not sufficient.

In its September report, the United Nations' Syria commission said the country was still not safe for returnees.

Reporting by Timour Azhari, Maya Gebeily and Laila Bassam; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Nick Macfie, William Maclean

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