The "escalation of pressure" on Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon and return home has been denounced by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report today. The rights group listed a number of "troubling developments regarding the presence of Syrian refugees" in Syria and insisted that "Lebanon cannot force returns without contravening international law".
Lebanon is hosting an estimated 1.5 million Syrians, almost one-quarter of the tiny Mediterranean country's population, making it the country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. This rapid increase in population has been the source of tension in the country over the past six years. None more so than in the refugee camps near Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border where Syrian refugees were alleged to have been tortured and killed by Lebanese security forces.
Lebanon's leaders, who appear desperate to see the Syrians returned back to their country, are deeply suspicious of anyone they regard is hampering this process. Last month Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil ordered a freeze on residency applications submitted by staff of the United Nations' refugee agency, accusing it of hindering the return of Syrian refugees by "spreading fear".
The UN agency has rejected the claim saying that these interviews are part of UNHCR's core mandate to protect the rights of refugees and ensure they are informed of the conditions in Syria so they can make an informed choice about whether to return at this time.
The attacks on UNHCR, say HRW, are a "troubling escalation of pressure on refugees." Refugees appear to be stuck between a rock and a hard place and many feel they have no option but to return and face the uncertainty of what may come their way in Syria. The rights group said that while there is no evidence that recent returns of Syrians have been forced, refugees opting to return were not entirely voluntary. The combination of harsh living conditions, largely as a result of Lebanese policies that have restricted legal residency, work and freedom of movement, were reasons for why Syrians elected to leave.
Some 3,000 refugees have signed up to a controversial Lebanese programme that returns them back to Syria. The first group were returned last week. Most of them are from Arsal, which has a population of 40,000 but now hosts about 60,000 Syrians in informal camps of tents. Despite assurances that refugees are returning voluntarily, HRW said that "if people are going back because of the conditions in Lebanon that's not a voluntary return."
Their safety once they return is not guaranteed as thousands of Syrians continue to flee their homes as a result of military offensive. Many fear they will be drafted into the Syrian army if they don't end up in prison.
For the Syrian regime on the other hand images of refugees voluntarily returning home has been a used as propaganda. President Bashar Al-Assad has used the images to bolster his claim that he has won the war and is re-establishing control and security in the country.