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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 August 2018

Syrian refugees in Lebanon alarmed by Russian involvement in planned repatriation

Refugees say they want UN involvement in facilitating their return

An elderly Syrian refugee waits at the Lebanon-Syria border before her evacuation back to Syria. AFP
An elderly Syrian refugee waits at the Lebanon-Syria border before her evacuation back to Syria. AFP

Syrian refugees living in Lebanon have spoken out against proposed Russian involvement in their planned repatriation.

Following a Russian delegation’s visit to Lebanon, on Wednesday officials announced plans for a joint Lebanese Russian committee to coordinate the return home of Syrian refugees.

But Syrians living in the Beqaa Valley town of Arsal – which with 50,000 refugees is one of the biggest settlements in Lebanon – told The National that they opposed the Russian proposal.

“Russia is responsible for the death of my fellow citizens. I do not believe it will guarantee me a safe return”, said Abou Brahim, a teacher from Qalamoun, a region of Syria which borders the Beqaa. “Russia and Bashar Al Assad are exactly the same for us”

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Since 2015, Russia military support to President Assad has helped to turn the tide of the seven-year civil war in the embattled leader’s favour. Recently, Russian airstrikes have been instrumental in the Syrian government’s offensive to retake the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra.

But Russia’s support of President Al Assad alarms Syrian refugees, many of whom fled persecution. “We want international protection from the United Nations and from countries like France, Turkey or Saudi Arabia,” said Wissam, a 25-year-old who gave only his first name.

Like many young Syrian men, he said he had deserted the Syrian army five years ago after witnessing violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Latakia.

Lebanese politicians are eager for Syrian refugees to return home, arguing that they represent an unbearable burden for the weak local economy and infrastructure. Nearly one million Syrian refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, but officials say their number could be as high as 1.5 million.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said in a statement on Friday that he welcomed Russia’s suggestion to secure the return of 890,000 refugees, following a meeting between a Russian delegation and top Lebanese officials on Thursday. President Aoun called on the UN to participate in Russia’s plan.

UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Pernille Dahler Kardel, who met President Aoun on Friday, didn’t directly respond to his request but stated that the UN is committed to cooperating with Lebanon to maintain the country’s security.

Voluntary returns of Syrian refugees from Arsal and South Lebanon have increased markedly in recent weeks. One of Lebanon’s main intelligence units, General Security, coordinated their departure with Syrian intelligence, which approved the names of those who wished to return.

In Arsal, some 3000 refugees registered for departure with 2000 already leaving, said deputy mayor Rima Kronbi. The remaining 1000 are expected to return in the coming weeks but registration has been put on hold for unknown reasons, said Ms Kronbi.

“Those who left Arsal were mostly worried about law 10”, says Abou Saleh, a lawyer from Jreijir and a member of a committee which claims to represent the 35,000 Syrians from Eastern Qalamoun who live in Arsal.

Law 10 was passed in April with the aim of facilitating reconstruction of Syria, but watchdogs have warned that the law – which gives residents a deadline to prove ownership of their homes – could be used to dispossess displaced Syrians.

“I care more about my life than about my house back in Syria,” said Mr Abou Saleh.

Refugees returning home say hardship in Lebanon is a primary factor. “I have no future here in Lebanon,” said Assaad Ramadan, 47. “In Syria, I have a chance to improve my situation.”

Others plan to return in spite of reservations. “I don’t believe in the Russian proposal,” said Abou Hassan, who plans to return to Syria to seek an operation to repair his six-year-old’s cleft palate. “People are still dying in Syria.”

But being of military age, he said he expected to be conscripted when he returned to Syria. “I’m comfortable in Lebanon,” he said. “If my son wasn’t ill, I would stay here.”

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