Some Syrian refugees risk returning to opposition-held areas as hostility in host Lebanon grows

IDLIB, Syria (AP) — For more than a decade, a steady flow of Syrians have crossed the border from their war-torn country into Lebanon. But anti-refugee sentiment is rising there, and in the past two months, hundreds of Syrian refugees have gone the other way.

They’re taking a smugglers’ route home across remote mountainous terrain, on motorcycle or on foot, then traveling by car on a risky drive through government-held territory into opposition-held northwestern Syria, avoiding checkpoints or bribing their way through.

Until this year, the numbers returning from Lebanon were so low that the local government in Idlib run by the insurgent group Hayat Tahrir al Sham had not formally tracked them. Now it has recorded 1,041 people arriving from Lebanon in May, up from 446 the month before. A Turkish-backed local administration overseeing other parts of northwest Syria said arrivals from Lebanon have increased there, too.

Tiny, crisis-wracked Lebanon is the host of the highest per capita population of refugees in the world and has long felt the strain. About 780,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the U.N. refugee agency there and hundreds of thousands more are unregistered.

For years, and particularly since the country sank into an unprecedented economic crisis in 2019, Lebanese officials have called for the refugees to be returned to Syria or resettled elsewhere. Tensions flared in April when an official with the Christian nationalist Lebanese Forces party, Pascal Suleiman, was killed in what military officials said was a botched carjacking by a Syrian gang.

That prompted outbreaks of anti-Syrian violence by vigilante groups. Lebanese security agencies cracked down on refugees, raiding and closing down businesses employing undocumented Syrian workers.

In hundreds of cases, authorities have deported refugees. The Lebanese government has also organized “voluntary return” trips for those willing to return to government-held areas, but few have signed up, fearing retaliation from Syria’s government and security forces.

As precarious as the situation is in Lebanon, most refugees still prefer it to northwest Syria, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups under regular bombing by Syrian government forces. It also suffers from aid cuts by international organizations that say resources are going to newer crises elsewhere in the world.

For Walid Mohammed Abdel Bakki, who went back to Idlib in April, the problems of staying in Lebanon finally outweighed the dangers of return.

“Life in Lebanon was hell, and in the end we lost my son,” he said.

Abdel Bakki’s adult son, Ali, 30, who he said has struggled with schizophrenia, disappeared for several days in early April after heading from the Bekaa valley to Beirut to visit his sister and look for work.

His family eventually found him at a police station in the town of Baabda. He was alive but “his body was all black and blue,” Abdel Bakki said. Some reports by activist groups said he was beaten by a racist gang, but Abdel Bakki asserted that his son had been arrested by Lebanese army intelligence for reasons that are unclear. Ali described being beaten and tortured with electric shocks, he said. He died several days later.

A spokesman for army intelligence did not respond to a request for comment. Faysal Dalloul, the forensic doctor who examined Ali, said he had multiple “superficial” wounds but scans of his head and chest had not found anything abnormal, and concluded that his death was natural.

Abdel Bakki was distraught enough that he borrowed $1,200 to pay smugglers to take him and his 11-year-old son to northwestern Syria, a journey that included an arduous trek through the mountains on foot.

“We spent a week on the road and we were afraid all the time,” he said.

They now stay with relatives in Idlib. Their own house had been damaged in an airstrike and then gutted by thieves.

Mohammad Hassan, director of the Access Center for Human Rights, an nongovernmental organization tracking the conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, said an “orchestrated wave of hate speech and violence against refugees, justified by political leaders” is pushing some to leave out of fear that otherwise they will be forcibly deported.

While Lebanese officials have warned against vigilante attacks on refugees, they also regularly blame Syrians for rising crime rates and called for more restrictions on them.

Hassan said the route from Lebanon to Idlib is “controlled by Lebanese and Syrian smuggling gangs linked with local and cross-border militias” and is not safe.

The route is particularly risky for those who are wanted for arrest in Syria’s government-controlled areas for dodging army service or for real or suspected affiliation with the opposition.

Ramzi Youssef, from southern Idlib province, moved to Lebanon before Syria’s civil war for work. He remained as a refugee after the conflict began.

He returned to Idlib last year with his wife and children, paying $2,000 to smugglers, driven by “racism, pressure from the state, the economic collapse in Lebanon and the lack of security.”

In Aleppo, the family was stopped at a checkpoint and detained after the soldiers realized they had come from Lebanon. Youssef said he was transferred among several military branches and interrogated.

“I was tortured a lot, even though I was outside the country since 2009 and had nothing to do with anything (in the war),” he said. “They held me responsible for other people, for my relatives.”

Syria’s government has denied reports of torture and extrajudicial killings in detention centers and accuses Western governments of launching smear campaigns against it and supporting “terrorists.”

In the end, Youssef was released and sent to compulsory military service. He escaped weeks later and made his way to Idlib with his family.

He said he has not looked back.

“Despite the poverty and living in a tent and everything else, believe me, I’m happy and until now I haven’t regretted that I came back from Lebanon,” he said.


Sewell reported from Beirut.


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