BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have gone back to Syria, the latest batch to head home to the war-torn country.
The refugees had gathered since the early hours of Thursday in the northern Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud. There, they boarded buses that took them home. Hundreds others also gathered in other parts of Lebanon from where buses took them home.
The returns come as Syrian government forces have made gains in recent years, capturing nearly 60 percent of Syria.
Thursday’s return was organized by Lebanon’s General Security Directorate in charge of foreigners in Lebanon.
Lebanon is hosting about 950,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to the UN refugee agency. The government estimates the true number of Syrian refugees in the country at 1.5 million.
Syria’s war has displaced half the pre-war population of 23 million people, of which 5.6 million have fled the country. In Lebanon, where Syrians make up nearly a quarter of the population, most of the refugees have said they intend to stay put, citing economic concerns, ongoing fighting and destroyed homes.
The fighting has wound down after seven years of brutal war. Using overwhelming military force, and with the help of Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias on the ground, Syrian President Bashar Assad has retaken key cities and major population centers in Syria.
But most refugees say they do not feel safe returning while the government they fled is still in place. Fighting continues in some areas, while others are in ruins. Many are worried their sons could be picked up for conscription or detained, harassed or imprisoned if they go back. Others worry they won’t find jobs.
A much touted Russian initiative to facilitate the return of refugees of Syria’s 7-year-old war from around the region appears to have largely fizzled out, with only a tiny fraction of the nearly 6 million who fled their country since the start of the conflict in March 2011 returning home.
The Russian military said last month 114,000 Syrians had returned home since the beginning of 2018. The UN refugee agency said at the time that it had verified only 37,000 refugees who voluntarily returned last year.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in August that “all conditions are in place” for the return of 1 million refugees, quoting progress in restoring infrastructure and the fact that hostilities have largely subsided.