BEIRUT —President Michel Aoun announced via Twitter on Wednesday that Lebanon will soon begin repatriating displaced Syrians "in batches."
The conclusion of the maritime border agreement with Israel "will be followed, starting next week, by the return of the displaced Syrians to their country in batches," the Lebanese Presidency tweeted from Baabda.
In July, caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine announced a plan to repatriate Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon with the goal of returning “15,000 displaced people per month.” On Wednesday, Charafeddine told L'Orient Today that Aoun's announcement marks "the beginning of the implementation of the plan," which will be overseen by General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim.
Aoun's tweet didn't mention whether the planned return of Syrian refugees would be forced or voluntary, but Charafeddine offered assurances that his plan is based on "a voluntary return plan for refugees wishing to return to Syria, and for individuals who are not under international protection in Lebanon and can safely return."
Lebanese officials have been pushing for years for the repatriation of Syrian refugees, though the UN's official stance is that Syria is not safe for mass returns.
Following Charafeddine's original announcement in July, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) issued a statement noting refugees "remain concerned about a combination of factors including: safety and security; housing; access to essential services and livelihoods … [and] until the factors inhibiting refugees’ return are addressed, it is crucial to ensure they continue to be safe and protected in Lebanon.”
Reports released by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch have corroborated that, while there has been a decline in military conflict, “arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and ill-treatment, involuntary or enforced disappearances, rape, and death” are still common in Syria.
On Wednesday, the UNHCR reiterated its position that it is not part of any plan to repatriate Syrians en masse.
In a statement sent to L'Orient Today, the agency said it "supports and calls for respect of refugees’ fundamental human right to freely and voluntarily return to their country of origin at a time of their choosing" and affirmed it "will continue to engage in dialogue with the Lebanese Government, including with the General Security Office in the context of GSO-facilitated return movements."