BEIRUT — General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim said Thursday that the international community's stance on the repatriation of Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon "could change" due to the increasing number of migration attempts from Lebanese coasts.
Ibrahim was referring to the numerous makeshift boats — carrying hundreds of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian nationals — that departed Lebanon in recent weeks, bound for Europe. In late September, one such crossing resulted in the death of more than 100 people after the boat capsized off Tartus, Syria.
On Wednesday, President Michel Aoun announced Lebanon will soon begin repatriating displaced Syrians "in batches." In a Thursday meeting with the Press Editors' Syndicate, Ibrhaim said the first "batch" of refugees returning to Syria will include 1,600 people.
"We are waiting for a response from the Syrian authorities to decide their return date," he added, according to a statement released by the state-run National News Agency. "We will not wait for a green light from [the international community] to resume the return batches, and no one has given us permission before."
According to Ibrahim, Lebanon has returned around 485,000 refugees since 2017. These returns were organized by the General Security in cooperation with Bashar al-Assad's regime, which approved the lists of returnees before their repatriation. Human Rights Watch claims these returnees faced "grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government," and condemned the planned mass returns as "a clear breach of Lebanon’s international obligations."
Ibrahim said over 2 million Syrians live in Lebanon, "among which are displaced people." The UN Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to be around 1.5 million.
The UNHCR reiterated Wednesday that it is not involved in any repatriation initiative, but that "thousands of refugees choose to exercise their right to return each year."
The official stance of the UN and the international community is that Syria is not safe for mass returns and that repatriation schemes should wait for a resolution to the Syrian conflict.
Reports released by international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, 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.