Two sisters who fled Syria prepare a meal inside their refugee tent located in the refugees camp in Akkar, Lebanon | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
Two sisters who fled Syria prepare a meal inside their refugee tent located in the refugees camp in Akkar, Lebanon | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

Syria and Lebanon are about to launch a controversial repatriation program for "tens of thousands" of refugees who fled from war in Syria. Meanwhile, migrants who want to reach Europe continue to make use of the porous borders between the two countries.

To offset the growing migration trend in the Middle East, authorities in Beirut and Damascus have announced a repatriation plan, which would see 15,000 Syrian refugees repatriated from Lebanon each month. Damascus welcomed the move, saying "(o)ur doors are open to Syrians who wish to return to their country."

Syrian minister for local administration Hussein Makhluf even said that the Syrian government would be willing to help with initial support, including temporary housing.

But just few hours after the program was announced in Damascus and Beirut on Tuesday, a Lebanese soldier died in a confrontation with people smugglers in the north-eastern part of the country near the border with Syria -- casting doubts on whether Lebanon can halt or even effectively reverse the migration trend, with or without Syria's cooperation.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian nationals, who have fled to Lebanon in the past 11 years of civil war in the country, the number of departures from the Mediterranean coasts of Lebanon have also increased considerably over the past few months. Those who try to leave the Middle East this way are mostly Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian, all hoping to reach Europe.

Meanwhile, the patience of locals, who are suffering under the worst economic crisis of Lebanon's history, is wearing thin.

Departures from Lebanon continue

For the past three years, 80% of residents in Lebanon have been living in poverty, according to the UN. The crisis is affecting countries across the region; even Syria is suffering the effects of the Lebanese currency crisis after over a decade of armed war, which has killed one and a half million people to date.

In addition to the high number of Syrians who try to flee to Europe via Lebanon, there are now many Lebanese and Palestinians also among those trying to flee the region, as unemployment and poverty are lining the pockets of people smugglers.

Approximately half of Syria's population was forced to abandon their homes since 2011, resulting in about 20 million people being displaced both internally and abroad. Over one million Syrians fled to Lebanon -- a country with a native population of roughly 4 million. Many of those who fled Syria are men, who came from parts of the country where the initial uprising against Bashar al-Assad's government was at its strongest.

Men especially at risk -- if they return

Tens of thousands of adult men now risk arrest if they return to Syria. Many fear that they will be taken to the country's notorious prisons, where there are reports of torture and forced disappearances.

Young Syrian men, who left the country while they still where children, face having to enlist in the military as part of the country's obligatory military service. Some fear that as the war continues in parts of the country, they could be risking their lives for a cause, which they do not believe in.

Many Syrians say they simply don't wish to return home after spending so much time building a new home.

The UN and the European Union have reiterated their public appeals to Lebanon and Syria, requesting repatriations only to occur on a voluntary basis and without undermining the dignity of war refugees.


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