Hundreds of Syrian refugees are returning home from a Lebanese border town. The voluntary returns were coordinated between authorities in Beirut and Damascus.
A group of around four hundred Syrian refugees living in the Lebanese border town of Arsal returned to Syria on Thursday, many of them to villages just across the border. Arsal currently hosts around 36,000 displaced Syrians.
Khaled Abdul-Aziz is a Syrian in charge of the returnees committee. He said that another 472 refugees would return on Thursday afternoon. He said a total of 3,194 refugees have registered to return, AP reported.
"We have been planning to go back for a long time, we are glad things have calmed down," Ali Abdullah, one of the Syrians due to return told Reuters. He explained to his son: "I want to take you back because that is your country." Most of those returning are farmers, some moving across the border with their tractors.
Feud between UNHCR and Lebanese government
Of the 11 million Syrians to have fled their homes, 1 million are in Lebanon, the UN refugee Agency UNHCR said. The Lebanese government refutes the claim, and says the true number is 1.5 million.
The Lebanese government has accused the UNHCR of discouraging Syrians from going back. UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled rejected the accusation as "false."
"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 told Reuters Thursday.
The UN said it would be present at the departure point to attend to the needs of the refugees but it would not interfere in the return process.
Lebanon's population is just 6 million, and accommodating the large number of Syrians has been costly. Lebanese authorities have pushed for more refugees to be returned.
UN officials and rights groups say the repatriations are premature as violence and a government crackdown continue in Syria, AP reports.
According to Human Rights Watch, a similar convoy left Arsal last year to areas held by insurgents in Syria. It was not clear what happened to those who returned.