ARSAL, Lebanon: Women and children crammed in the back of pick-up trucks piled high with mattresses and blankets, as dozens of Syrian refugees in Lebanon began crossing the border on Thursday, heading back home to an uncertain future in war-torn Syria.
The small exodus is part of a repatriation program that the government says is voluntary — the first batch of refugees to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal this year. About 470 Syrians are expected to make the crossing on Thursday, after having requested permission from the Lebanese and Syrian governments.
Syrian pro-government Al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast from the border crossing, showing vehicles and civilians crossing over, and some of who were interviewed praised the Syrian army.
Khaled Abdul-Aziz, a Syrian who heads the returnees committee, said a total of 472 were scheduled to go back by Thursday afternoon. He said a total of 3,194 refugees have registered to return, adding that after this week's crossings, the rest will head back in batches in the coming weeks.
The repatriations come amid a row between the Lebanese government and the U.N.'s refugee agency, which Beirut accuses of trying to discourage refugees from returning home. UNHCR has rejected the charges.
Lebanon hosts around 1 million registered Syrian refugees, or roughly a quarter of the population, and officials have warned the country can no longer afford the strain on the fragile economy.
U.N. officials and rights groups have expressed concern over the organized repatriations, calling them premature as violence and a government crackdown continue in Syria. Syrians are often driven to leave by "oppressive" living conditions in Lebanon, including a lack of residency, restriction on movement and inability to enroll children in school, said Lama Fakih, deputy director of the Middle East region in Human Rights Watch.
In Arsal, the refugees gathered in the town's Wadi Hmeid area where a Lebanese security officer first checked their IDs against a list, before allowing them to cross into Syria.
Most of those returning are farmers and their families, some on pickup trucks and tractors.
"I cannot describe my happiness, I'm returning to my country after five years and will see my parents for the first time in five years," said Hanadi Massoud, who was going back with her husband, three daughters and mother in law.
The family had been in Lebanon since 2013. They are now returning to their hometown of Jarajeer in the Qalamoun region, which returned to government control gradually in 2014 and 2015.
As the Syrian army, backed by its allies Russia and Iran, has regained more territory from rebels in Syria, the Lebanese government has argued that many areas in Syria have stabilized enough for refugees to return.
For its part, the United Nations is cautious and says the country is not yet safe.
Lebanese general security chief Abbas Ibrahim on Wednesday said UNHCR has been notified about Syrians returning on Thursday in a letter, "so they can bear their responsibility."
Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Beirut, said the agency is not organizing these returns. Abou Khaled said representatives of the agency however are present at the crossings to answer questions. She confirmed authorities informed them of the planned repatriation.
"UNHCR, as in previous movements ... will be present at the departure point to attend to any query or any needs the refugees may have as they prepare to leave to Syria," she said.
Fakih, of HRW, said research on Syrians in Arsal before revealed "oppressive conditions" that led many to return. A similar convoy last year left Arsal to areas held by insurgents in Syria. It was not immediately clear what happened to those who returned.
"Chief among (their) concerns was concerns about not having residency in Lebanon which restricts their ability to move or to send children to school" or obtain necessary assistance, she said.
Basil al-Hujeiry, Arsal mayor, said more than 3,000 Syrians have been registered to return home from the border town. He said Syrian authorities have asked that the repatriations take place in phases.
Once home to some 120,000 Syrian refugees, the number in Arsal dwindled over the past two years to 50,000 after thousands returned home or moved elsewhere in Lebanon, said al-Hujeiry.
On the edge of the town's rugged mountains, refugee settlements seen from a distance were made up of tents.
The U.N. refugee agency "is fully respectful of the decision of the Lebanese government and we fully respect the decision of the families to return. We don't interfere," said Josep Zapater, head of the agency's office in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley.
Some young men have said they prefer not to return to Syria for fear of being drafted into the military but those going back on Thursday said they were promised they will not be drafted earlier than six months after their return.
"I am really scared about being drafted to the army but the situation in Syria now is more safe," said Salah-Eddine Abdul-Aziz, 26, who is returning to his hometown of Fleeta along with his wife and son. "All I want is to return to Syria and not leave it again. Enough of being a refugee."
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