Syrian refugees who made the journey back home are fleeing back to Lebanon after finding their homes destroyed or occupied by others, according to Lebanese NGO Sawa for Development and Aid.
Researchers – who conducted interviews with some 40 Syrian families living in various parts of the country – found that whilst civilians were increasingly opting to go to Syria due to the harsh living conditions in Lebanon, some had returned to the camps after finding their homes destroyed beyond repair.
One family from Raqqa, east of Aleppo, told researchers they had sold their belongings in Lebanon and returned to Syria with their six children in January 2018, after being unable to afford medical expenses. However, upon their arrival they found their home partially collapsed and looted, with armed militias occupying other homes in the area. Fearful for their safety, they returned to Lebanon.
"We lost everything by going back to Raqqa," the report quoted the father of the family as saying. The father added:
It cost $400 in transport to and from Raqqa within Syria, $233 to rent the house outside Raqqa, hundreds of dollars for price-inflated food and water, and $900 for the smuggler. We sold everything before returning, so when we fled back to Lebanon we had nothing.
Another woman told the NGO that she had returned to her house in the central Syrian city of Homs only to find it occupied by squatters who refused to let her in. She also found she was due to pay some $2,500 in electricity bills accumulated over the six years of her absence, even though she had not been using the house.
Although the widow had documents proving her ownership of the property, she was reluctant to seek help from the Syrian authorities: "The authorities are part of the problem, so how could I go to them asking for justice?" she said.
Refugees also noted the story of another elderly woman who was held at the Lebanese border by Syrian officials for some 45 days, allegedly due to her son's involvement with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). She reportedly also returned to Lebanon shortly afterwards.
Elena Hodges, a policy, research and advocacy officer with Sawa, said that refugee returns were more common than the report was able to document. "There are more of these stories. They're not represented in this report, and we don't know what the incidence is in terms of percentage of returnees," she explained.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International researcher Diana Semaan said refugees in Lebanon were having difficulty getting accurate information on conditions in Syria. "Refugees may have relatives inside, but the relatives are so afraid to speak about the situation that they give them false information," Semaan said. "There's serious misinformation coming out from inside Syria that doesn't allow refugees to make an informed decision," she added.
As the Syrian war appears to wind down, Damascus has called on refugees to return to their homes which are largely under regime control once again. However, Syrians still face numerous obstacles deterring their return, including property ownership documentation demanded by the Syrian regime, forced conscription and the presence of mines and unexploded ordinance in civilian areas.
The fear of reprisals from the government is also frequently cited by aid groups as one of the main reasons refugees give for not wanting to return home. Amid the breakdown of various reconciliation agreements in recaptured areas, regime forces have attempted to further consolidate their control through a campaign of arrests and detentions.
However, difficult living conditions abroad have been a key reason persuading many Syrians to make the journey; Lebanon and Jordan have both been accused of neglecting management of refugee camps in an attempt to encourage refugees to return to Syria, despite the challenges they face there.
Earlier this week, Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil also urged Syria to offer guarantees on property rights and military service to speed the return of refugees. Bassil also said commitments from Damascus would help end what he called an "ongoing campaign of intimidation" to stop refugees from going home, without elaborating.