|Date: Oct 1, 2018|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|How many Syrian refugees have actually returned from Lebanon?|
|Abby Sewell| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: The announcement by General Security head Abbas Ibrahim last week that 50,000 Syrian refugees have returned from Lebanon so far this year has left some observers scratching their heads.
The number cited by Ibrahim is considerably higher than both the figures reported by the United Nations refugee agency and those mentioned in the Lebanese agency’s own previous announcements.
General Security in recent months has been registering Syrian refugees willing to return and organizing their transportation as well as serving as an intermediary with Syrian authorities, who in some cases may reject a potential returnee.
Returnees, in exchange, receive certain assurances from the Syrian authorities, including a six-month reprieve from conscription for men of military age.
In Ibrahim’s statement during an interview with Reuters, he said 25,000 refugees had gone back by way of General Security and another 25,000 had returned of their own initiative so far this year, for a total of 50,000. He projected that if the current rate of returns continues, the number could reach 200,000 within a year’s time.
There are currently 976,002 Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR; the Lebanese government believes the total number is significantly higher.
The General Security media office has typically put out an announcement when each group of returnees has departed, citing the number of people going back usually totaling several hundred each time. When added up, the numbers cited in this year’s announcements totaled slightly more than 4,000 as of Friday.
The agency had also announced plans for another set of groups to return Monday.
A spokesperson for General Security, when asked whether the 25,000 reflected those who had already returned or included some who had registered but not yet departed, told The Daily Star that Ibrahim’s “words were clear this is the number who returned from the beginning of the year.”
They did not respond to a question regarding the apparent discrepancy with the agency’s previously published numbers.
The UNHCR, which also tracks refugee returns, has tallied around 3,100 returnees to Syria from Lebanon so far in 2018.
UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said those numbers represented individual returns, which are separate from those coordinated by General Security. The previous year, the refugee agency counted about 11,000 returns of refugees who were deregistered from its database in Lebanon.
However, the UNHCR number for 2018 is still considerably lower than the 25,000 refugees Ibrahim cited as having returned on their own initiative.
Asked about the discrepancy, Abou Khaled said in a statement, “There are indeed more spontaneous returns that we are not capturing, but we do not have this number.”
UNHCR staff have been present to observe 26 General Security-organized return movements so far this year, she said in some cases, several movements might have occurred on the same day when there were groups leaving from different locations at the same time. But Abou Khaled said the UNHCR did not have a count of the total number of refugees who went back with these groups.
Director of Research at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute Nasser Yassin, who tracks statistics related to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, said he was also confused by the new numbers provided by General Security, given the lower numbers cited in previous announcements. “I really have no idea how they got this number no one has, that I’ve talked to,” Yassin said.
He noted that even if assuming the 50,000 figure is correct, it still represents only about 5 percent of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon, suggesting a slow rate of return.
Yassin added that the number will depend on changing conditions on the ground in Syria, including security, economic factors and the question of military conscription.
“It could go up significantly, particularly if the conditions in Syria are more encouraging,” he said.