Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced on Thursday that Beirut would not force Syrian refugees to return to their country against their will.
“My government’s position is very clear. Nobody’s going to force anyone to go back if they don’t want to go back,” he stressed.
In a speech at a donor conference in Beirut calling for $2.68 billion in humanitarian aid for the crisis this year, Hariri warned that refugees would try to move to other countries if there was not enough support for them in Lebanon.
“We need more from the international community because we are doing a public service for the international community. Otherwise these people, if we do not do more, if you do not do more, they will seek refuge somewhere else,” he said.
More than a million Syrians fled into neighboring Lebanon after war broke out in their country in 2011 and now account for about a quarter of its population. The UNHCR said last month that the number of registered refugees in Lebanon dropped to below one million for the first time since 2014.
As the Syrian regime has gained control over more territory, and as fighting has ended in more parts of Syria, some Lebanese politicians have called for Syrian refugees to return.
One refugee who has returned is Ammar Maarawi, who fled Aleppo in 2016, but is now back.
He paid smugglers and endured a dangerous sea crossing to Greece and an exhausting journey by train, bus and foot through Europe.
Two years later, the 36-year-old is back home in Aleppo. He returned last summer — depressed, homesick and dreading another winter, he could not bear life in the German city of Suhl.
Maarawi is among a small number of refugees who have come back to Syria from among the more than 5.4 million who fled their homeland since 2011.
So far, they are just a trickle, numbering in the tens of thousands. The United Nations and host governments in Europe are not encouraging returns, saying the country is not safe, said an Associated Press report.
Motivations for going back are many.
Simple homesickness is one. Many refugees have burned through whatever savings they have and either cannot find or are not allowed to work. Hundreds of thousands languish in camps in the neighbor countries. Those who make it to Europe often get assistance, but some find the West does not hold the opportunities they hoped — or they face discrimination or they feel alienated in a different culture with language barriers and harsh weather.
The UNHCR has observed some 68,000 refugees who returned on their own from neighboring countries from January to October 2017, the most recent figures available, according to spokesman Andrej Mahecic. He said the number of returnees is dwarfed by those remaining in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe, and those still leaving Syria.
Turkey, home to 3.5 million Syrian refugees, seized a pocket of territory in northwest Syria along the countries' shared border last year. Since then, some 130,000 Syrians from that area have returned.
From Jordan, home to 650,000 refugees, only around 8,000 Syrians returned home in all of 2017, according to UNHCR figures.
Not all are going back because they are ready.
One woman, Umm Wissam, told The Associated Press she returned to Syria in August after six years in Jordan. Her husband was deported several months earlier — one of around 2,300 deported by Jordan in 2017. He had been working in construction in Jordan and without his income, Umm Wissam and the couple's five children could not continue to live there. The family is from Aleppo, but the cost of living there has forced them to settle in the southern Syrian city of Daraa.
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