GENEVA - The United Nations says conditions are not right for the safe, orderly return of large groups of refugees from Lebanon to the homes they fled in Syria, although fighting in that war-torn country has largely subsided.
Syria is nearly eight years into a crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and generated 5.6 million refugees and another 6.2 million internally displaced people. Neighboring Lebanon is hosting the highest number of refugees per capita, with about 1 refugee for every 4 inhabitants.
The presence of some 1.3 million Syrian refugees is a huge burden in a country suffering from political instability, a dire economic situation and extremely high joblessness.
The U.N. resident coordinator for Lebanon, Philippe Lazzarini, said conditions for both the indigenous and refugee populations remain extremely precarious and bleak. He says tensions between the host communities and refugees are high, especially over competition for low-skilled jobs. He says the return of the refugees to Syria is one of the main concerns of the Lebanese people.
Lazzarini said the refugees are in no rush to go home. Last year, he said between 16,000 and 17,000 people went back to Syria. He told VOA every voluntary return is controlled and on an individual basis.
"Internal security in Lebanon are transmitting the names of the people who want to go back to Damascus. Then, in Damascus, these names are vetted and once they are vetted or cleared, the response comes back to Lebanon and that is when the return is taking place," Lazzarini said.
Once the process is completed, Lazzarini said the U.N. refugee agency helps organize the return of the individual to his or her home in Syria; but, he stresses the voluntary returns are limited. He says no large-scale repatriation operation will take place until the U.N. deems the refugees can return to Syria in conditions of safety and dignity.