Hundreds of Syrian refugees have been voluntarily returning to their villages and towns in rural Damascus, Homs and Hama provinces in co-ordination with the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security (GDGS).
The directorate has been co-ordinating the refugee repatriation efforts with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Lebanese Red Cross.
The voluntary return of refugees began in February, but the pace has picked up over the past three months since the GDGS took over the task of overseeing the repatriation of those who had previously expressed their desire to return.
GDGS has designated 17 offices across Lebanon to receive requests from Syrian refugees wishing to return, the directorate said in an August 6th statement.
Since the offices opened, they have been crowded with refugees seeking to register their names and ask about the documents required for repatriation.
"I brought my father to register to return to rural Damascus after a seven-year absence," said Omar Qassem, who was among those waiting to register at the Bourj Hammoud office.
Qassem told Al-Mashareq that his parents, who are elderly, "are determined to return, but it is too early for me to consider it. I will wait for cues from them after they return, and if they are positive, I will join them".
Co-ordination with UNHCR
The repatriation process is being carried out in co-ordination with the UNHCR, whose representatives are present and record the names and number of returnees, the directorate said, and in co-ordination with Syrian authorities.
"The UNHCR and the GDGS have a strong relationship, and the UNHCR co-operates with the GDGS on a number of matters," UNHCR public information officer Lisa Abou Khaled told Al-Mashareq.
But while UNHCR representatives are present at the GDGS offices and at border crossings when the refugees depart, the UN refugee agency "does not take part in registering return applications at those offices", Abou Khaled said.
This is because the UNHCR is "not organising or encouraging" the return of Syrian refugees at this point in time, she said.
"The UNHCR reiterates that it respects the decisions of individual refugees to return, even though it is not in a position to organise or encourage their return to Syria at this stage," Abou Khaled said.
"The UNHCR is continuing to assess the intentions and needs of the refugees who have expressed their intention to return to Syria," she added.
The agency has been assisting those who need to obtain civil documents that record important events that took place in Lebanon, such as births, marriages and deaths, she said, as well as education certificates.
"We are doing all of this to make the process of rebuilding their lives in their country a little easier," Abou Khaled said.
Municipalities facilitate process
Lebanese municipalities are indirectly involved in the process of repatriating Syrian refugees, by providing Lebanese authorities with a list of the names and number of refugees residing within their boundaries.
Last month, Hazmieh municipality started to fill out forms containing information about Syrian refugees living and working in the area at the request of the GDGS, said Hazmieh municipal chief Jean el-Asmar.
"We submit the list to the GDGS once a week," he told Al-Mashareq.
Pursuant to a circular issued by the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, the Dekwene municipality "is conducting a census of the refugees in the region", municipal chief Antoine Chakhtoura said.
"We found that their number decreased from 11,000 to 2,750, and we believe that the majority of them have returned to Syria," he said.