The head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah said on Friday his powerful movement was creating a mechanism to help Syrian refugees in the country return home, in coordination with Lebanese authorities and Damascus.
Lebanon hosts just under one million registered refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria, although authorities say the real number is much higher.
As some battlefronts in Syria’s devastating seven-year war have quietened, Lebanese officials are ramping up demands that refugees go home, and Hezbollah said on Friday it wanted to play a role.
“We in Hezbollah, facing the slow progress in resolving this issue and based on our good and strong relationship with the Syrian state, we want to help,” said its head Hassan Nasrallah.
Thousands of Hezbollah fighters, as well as Russian warplanes, have helped Syrian government troops retake swathes of territory in recent years.
Nasrallah said the group was setting up centers with phone numbers and social media accounts where refugees could sign up to return home.
“We will submit these lists to the relevant authorities in Syria,” said Nasrallah, and would also coordinate with Lebanon’s General Security agency.
“We will work together so that as many Syrian refugees as possible who want a voluntary and safe return can go back,” he said in a televised address.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah would take advantage of the summer months as Syrian families would want to be home before schools open in September.
“There is no time to lose,” he said. “There is a huge difference between living in a tent and returning home, to your neighborhood, your school.”
Nasrallah spoke a day after several hundred Syrian refugees left the Lebanese border town of Arsal, returning to their hometowns around Damascus.
The operation was coordinated between Lebanon’s General Security and Syrian authorities.
Earlier this year, around 500 refugees also left southern Lebanon for Syria in a return organised by Beirut and Damascus.
Several thousand have independently left in recent years.
Nasrallah said neither his group nor the Lebanese government wanted to force refugees to return.
But he warned of local and international efforts aimed at dissuading refugees from going home.
Lebanon’s top diplomat Gebran Bassil has accused United Nations refugee agency UNHCR of trying to persuade refugees to stay in Syria, and retaliated by blocking the issuing of any new work permits for the agency’s foreign staff.