ARSAL, Lebanon (AP) — Women and children crammed in the back of pick-up trucks piled high with mattresses and blankets, dozens of Syrian refugees in Lebanon began crossing the border Thursday, heading back home to an uncertain future in war-torn Syria.
The small exodus is part of a repatriation that the government says is voluntary — the first batch of refugees to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal. About 470 Syrians are expected to make the crossing on Thursday, after having requested permission from the Lebanese and Syrian governments.
Khaled Abdul-Aziz, a Syrian who heads the returnees committee said another 472 are scheduled to return on Friday. 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 the coming weeks.
The repatriation comes amid a row between the Lebanese government and the U.N. refugee agency, which Beirut accuses of trying to discourage refugees from returning home. UNHCR has rejected the charges.
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.
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.
Lebanese general security chief Abbas Ibrahim on Wednesday announced said the 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 has been informed by the Lebanese, stressing that the U.N. refugee agency is not the one organizing these returns.
“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.