Syrian refugees in Lebanon mull fears of detention back home as hundreds cross into government territory

AMMAN: Hundreds of refugees living in northeastern Lebanon packed up their belongings and crossed into government-held eastern Syria on Thursday, in the second organized return convoy this year as Lebanese officials urge Syrians driven away by war to return home.

At least 400 Syrian refugees residing in informal camps in and around the northeastern Lebanese border town of Arsal drove their own vehicles—some simply loading into tractors—back home into Syrian territory throughout Thursday, sources in the camps told Syria Direct.

The makeshift convoy began gathering near the Syrian border for the “voluntary” departure early Thursday morning, according to a Lebanese General Security statement published by the state-run National News Agency.

Thursday’s departure was the second such return by Syrian refugees this year, after a convoy of buses transported hundreds of refugees in the south Lebanon town of Shebaa across the border to the Syrian government-held town of Beit Jinn in April.

Lebanese security personnel check identification papers as a refugee family returns to Syria from Lebanon’s Arsal on Thursday. Photo by AFP.

The latest returns come despite fears that refugees—many of whom are moving back home to towns previously controlled by rebel forces—could face detention or conscription by Damascus authorities upon arrival in Syria, two prospective returnees told Syria Direct from Arsal on Thursday.

Young men had signed both themselves and their families onto lists circulated by the Arsal municipality to request permission to cross back into Syria, they said, but remained concerned about what awaited them across the border. They cited harsh living conditions in the Arsal camps as their reason for returning anyways.

“Of course I’m afraid of the regime,”  Mohammad Abu Ali, a 23-year-old cherry farmer from rural Outer Damascus, told Syria Direct on Thursday, as hundreds of refugees filed across the border. Abu Ali is awaiting his own family’s turn to cross from Arsal to their hometown of Qarah, 10km east of the Lebanese border.

“I’m afraid they’ll take me to prison or detain me in Saydnaya,” Abu Ali said, referring to one of the Syrian government’s most notorious prisons. He said his cousin was detained five years ago by Syrian authorities and disappeared. “We still don’t know what happened to him.”

Abou a-Nour, a 33-year-old father of three, told Syria Direct he also signed up to return to his hometown in Outer Damascus due to social “pressures” and ostracization in Lebanon, but was not sure he would go through with the move unless “there are guarantees not to detain us.”

A-Nour, who fled to Lebanon in 2012, is originally from Moadhamiyet a-Sham, a former bastion of opposition support just outside Damascus that was hit by a sarin gas attack in 2013.

Just how much of a threat arrest may be for those returning to Syria remains unclear. Syrians who returned from southern Lebanon to Outer Damascus’ Beit Jinn this past April found themselves in a town without internet access and only a limited phone connection, family members of the returnees told Syria Direct in recent weeks. As a result, information on any potential arrests or even daily living conditions in the town is difficult to come by.

Syrian state media did not report Thursday’s returns as of late afternoon. Lebanese government officials, including President Michel Aoun, have publicly called in recent months for the more than one million Syrian refugees residing in the country to return to “safe” areas in Syria that are not seeing active fighting.

The United Nations refugee agency did not coordinate or oversee the return process Thursday, but was nevertheless aware of refugees’ general fears of detention upon arrival in Syria, UNHCR’s Lebanon spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled told Syria Direct via email. She cited a UNHCR survey published in January that listed detention, military conscription and “individual persecution or retaliation” among the factors deterring Syrian refugees in Lebanon from returning home.

“We are working in various ways for the gradual removal of the obstacles that refugees see to their return, including through advocating with the concerned authorities inside Syria,” Abou Khaled said.

It remained unclear on Thursday whether the families returning from Arsal would receive any international aid or legal protection once inside Syria. UNHCR workers in Syria “are seeking access to the return villages but so far have not been able to visit,” Abou Khaled added.

Not everyone is willing to return home. As hundreds of Syrians filed out of Arsal throughout Thursday, 28-year-old engineer Abdul Ghafour thought over his decision not to join them.

“It’s true that our situation as refugees in Lebanon is terrible, but returning … would be even more difficult,” Ghafour told Syria Direct. He first came to Arsal in 2013 after fleeing fighting in the Homs province town of al-Qusayr. There, he says, pro-government fighters killed two of his siblings and “destroyed” his home.

“In the end, everyone is free to make their own choice about returning, and everyone has their own opinion” said Ghafour. “What we’re living through in Lebanon is the lesser evil.”

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Mohammad al-Ghazawi

Mohammad al-Ghazawi is from Deraa in southern Syria. He studied journalism at Yarmouk University in Jordan and began his work as a reporter with the student newspaper at Yarmouk. He has contributed several pieces to media conferences and forums in Jordan. His area of focus is politics in the Arab world, with a focus on Syrian affairs. He is participating in Syria Direct’s training program in order to develop his skills so that he may develop in-depth reports about what is happening in his country and serve the Syrian people.

Fatima Abdallah

Fatima is from Homs province. She relocated to Jordan in 2013 because of the war. Fatima hopes to complete her university studies in order to help rebuild her country after the war. She has volunteered with several humanitarian organizations which assist Syrian refugees in Jordan and is working with Syria Direct in order to help her fellow Syrians and broadcast their voices.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.