- 294 Syrian refugees left Arsal in Lebanon on Thursday and returned to western Qalamoun in Syria under the supervision of the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
- The returning refugees gathered since early morning at the checkpoint in Wadi Hamid, which separates Arsal from the Jurud Arsal area that overlaps with Syrian territory.
BEIRUT: Almost 300 Syrian refugees left Arsal in Lebanon on Thursday and returned to western Qalamoun in Syria under the supervision of the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
In April, about 3,000 Syrian refugees in the Arsal camps registered with the committee organizing their return. They asked to return to their towns in western Qalamoun within the framework of a reconciliation with the Syrian authorities.
The lists of names were submitted to the Lebanese General Security, which in turn communicated with the Syrian authorities and awaited Syrian approval.
Arsal Mayor Basil Hujairi told Arab News: “Syria’s initial approval allowed the return of 3,000 people, but the lists that returned from Syria included only 294 names; some of them were not granted permits for their families to return with them, so they preferred to stay in the camp and wait for a permit that included all members of their families.”
Hujairi said: “The Syrian authorities requested that refugees return in groups. Lebanon is awaiting Syria’s decision to approve the entry of the second group of Syrian refugees after the General Security receives Syria’s written approval.
“Until now, no time has been specified for the return of the second group,” he said.
The returning refugees gathered since early morning at the checkpoint in Wadi Hamid, which separates Arsal from the Jurud Arsal area that overlaps with Syrian territory. They carried their belongings as well as tents.
They loaded their belongings along with their family members in cars used earlier when they fled to Lebanon. The municipality of Arsal also provided returnees with pickup trucks that carried them to the Syrian border.
The Lebanese General Security scrutinized the returnees’ documents under the supervisory umbrella of the Lebanese army and the internal security forces.
The General Security Directorate said that it had “secured the voluntary return of 294 Syria refugees,” and that “their return was carried out in coordination with the UNHCR and in its presence after having directly communicated with those who wished to return.”
However, UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled told Arab News: “The UNHCR did not have a coordinating role, but was answering the questions of returning refugees.
“We have coordinated with the Lebanese Red Cross and a civil society association to vaccinate children and provide necessary medicines to sick people with the most urgent needs,” she said.
The UNHCR team in Syria was trying “to reach western Qalamoun in order to keep pace with the returnees and is still waiting for the Syrian authorities’ approval to be allowed entry to the area, but the approval has not yet come,” Abou Khaled said.
She said the returnees’ demands were focused on “securing documents like birth certificates, divorce papers, marriage contracts, or death documents as well as securing school documents so that their children can go to schools in Syria.”
The return journey to Fleita and the western villages of Qalamoun took about an hour.
Hujairi said: “Before they are sent to their towns, returnees will be received by the Syrian authorities at schools until border security measures are completed.”
About 50,000 Syrian refugees remain in and around Arsal, according to witnesses, while refugees registered with UNHCR number about 40,000.
Khaled Abdul Aziz, a Syrian who heads the returnees’ committee and who returned on Thursday with the first group, said: “Ninety-nine percent of the returnees’ houses are undamaged and unaffected by the war.”
Nevertheless, voluntary repatriation in the framework of a reconciliation with the Syrian regime will not include refugees from Al-Qusayr and its surroundings. They remained in their tents in Arsal, watching as others packed and left to return to Syria.
Most of those interviewed by Arab News agreed that such a return was “inconceivable.”
Abu Mohammed, who heads the Iwaa Al-Ward refugee camp in Arsal, said those who were not allowed to return to Syria would organize a peaceful sit-in on Friday at the Molham School in Arsal with the approval of the Lebanese authorities.
“We are watching returnees and what will become of them and do not wish to be the scapegoat; Al-Qusayr is a special case,” he said. “In our sit-in, we will declare that we will hold on to our Syrian identity and reject resettlement. We wish to leave Lebanon under UN protection and we want a decent means of livelihood.”
Abu Mohammed said that a number of villages in Al-Qusayr’s countryside had been destroyed.
“Some of us did not bring their land or real estate ownership documents, but it is possible to obtain new ones inside Syria,” he said, “We hope to return to Syria before a year passes, which is the extended duration for proving real estate ownership according to Syria’s new Law No. 10.”
Abou Khaled said that the UNHCR is keen to avoid separating families.
Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to freeze the renewal of UNHCR staff residency permits,” she said.
“This freeze has affected 19 employees — some of whom are high-level staff — whose residencies expired about a week ago and are still in Lebanon anticipating developments,” she said.
Earlier this month, caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil ordered a freeze on the renewal of UNHCR staff residency permits and accused them of obstructing the return of refugees.
The UNHCR denied this accusation and said it supported the return of refugees when conditions were safe.
Major international donors to Lebanon expressed their dissatisfaction with what they deemed “false accusations against the UNHCR.”
Reuters quoted a senior Lebanese official saying his country would resume granting residency permits to UNHCR staff once they and other UN bodies provided “a clear plan for the repatriation of Syrian refugees.”
Hadi Hachem, Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry chief of Cabinet, said that Lebanon hoped to sit down with the UNHCR, UN agencies and relevant members of the international community to come up with a “clear, gradual plan for the return.”
He said: “Gebran Bassil will amend his decision and visas will come back when this meeting takes place and the return plan is on the right track.”