Mohammad Al Arabi’s borrowed ute arrives before dawn at Beirut’s Burg Hammoud sports stadium.
- About 5,000 Syrian refugees have returned from Lebanon this year
- Refugees wishing to return are vetted for links with rebels
- The UN does not support the refugees’ return to Syria
His wife and three boys sit in the low-slung tray of the white Toyota, wedged between a tall load of suitcases, plastic bags stuffed full with clothes, a microwave, a rug and even a giant pink doll belonging to his daughter.
This family is finally going home to Syria. Today they’re among almost 500 refugees who are returning home from Lebanon.
“I have all my stuff with me. I’ve been living here for six years and I cannot afford to buy anything in Syria so I’ve carried all my things,” he said.
“I’m leaving because I don’t have any work and I have children to feed.”
About 5,000 refugees have gone home from Lebanon this year — part of a deal between Syria and Beirut, which wants the 1.5 million refugees here to leave.
Syrian refugees are returning to their homeland with all their possessions. (ABC News: Adam Harvey)
These returnees do want to go back — they’re not allowed to work in Lebanon and their presence is unpopular — but it’s still a public relations exercise for the Syrian Government, which is paying for the buses to take these families home.
The Government of Bashar al Assad wants to show it’s back in control after eight years of civil war, and that it’s safe for people to return.
Syria still too dangerous: UN
The relocation doesn’t have the backing of the United Nations or refugee groups, which consider Syria too dangerous for refugees to go home.
Nevertheless, UN workers are here to watch. UNHCR protection officer Vanessa Moya says they are making sure the refugees actually want to go back.
She’s very careful not to criticise the return. She’s in a difficult position; criticising either Syria or Lebanon would jeopardise the UNHCR’s ability to work here.
It is clearly too dangerous for many of the millions of refugees in Syria or Turkey to go home, either because of ongoing fighting in places like Idlib province, or the prospect of reprisals by the Syrian Government.
But you won’t hear those concerns voiced today. These families have been thoroughly vetted and anyone remotely connected to the Syrian opposition simply isn’t given permission to go back. Some sources in Beirut estimate at least 30 per cent of applicants to return are rejected.
Mahmoud Sultan Sawaya is returning with his extended family — including his five-month-old daughter, Layla, and his sister who has a disability and is in a wheelchair. The family was vetted by the Syrian regime and cleared to return.
Mahmoud Sultan Sawaya and his five-month-old daughter Layla are returning to Syria. (ABC News: Adam Harvey)
“It’s very expensive to live in Lebanon, we cannot continue,” he said.
“I went to the immigration office and registered because I wanted to go back to Syria and thanks to God they made it easy for us. I got the approval and thanks to God we came here today.”
He says his home in Syria has not been destroyed — or occupied by someone else.
There are long, tearful farewells on the side of the road as the buses arrive in Beirut to take the families home.
Rougina Outa weeps as she helps her mum get on the bus.
“She cannot return anymore because the ones who leave cannot come back, and I cannot go there,” she said.
“Only God knows if we ever see each other again.”