ARSAL, Lebanon: Hundreds of Syrian refugees who have been living in the northern Lebanese town of Arsal arrived to their homes in Syria’s Qalamoun Thursday, Syria's state-run SANA reported.
Syria had already made the necessary arrangements to receive the group of over 400 refugees who departed from Arsal earlier in the day.
A photo posted by SANA depicted eight green buses parked on the side of the road in Qalamoun.
The group was the first of over 3,000 Syrian refugees who registered to return from Arsal.
The departure began at around 8 a.m. in Arsal, where vehicles loaded with families’ belongings prepared to depart under the supervision of the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces.
"Hundreds" of Syrian refugees who had not registered to return gathered by the departing buses to express their willingness to return, several local media outlets reported.
The vehicles passed through an ISF checkpoint for name and identity checks and at an Army checkpoint for security checks before heading towards the al-Zamrani border in the town of Wadi Hmayyed to be dropped off.
A statement from the Lebanese Red Cross, which was stationed in Wadi Hmayyed at the U.N. refugee agency’s request, said it had provided necessary medical care to 40 people, including children, the elderly, and pregnant women.
The LRC had two ambulances and 14 paramedics at the scene to transport those in need of medical assistance to its mobile clinic and back to the assembly point.
After the refugees crossed the border, Syrian authorities took over and transported them to six different villages in Qalamoun.
The ISF announced Wednesday that the UNHCR had been notified of the planned return.
The UNHCR was also previously notified by General Security of Thursday’s returns, and was present at the point of departure, as it was during previous returns to Assal al-Ward in 2017 and Beit Jin earlier in 2018, the U.N. refugee agency told The Daily Star.
"General Security has been in close contact on this return movement. UNHCR respects refugees’ own choices when they decide to [return]," UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said, noting that while the agency did not organize the returns, it is working in various ways to gradually remove the obstacles that hinder refugees from returning.
This, Abou Khaled said, included advocating with relevant authorities inside Syria.
In previous comments to The Daily Star, Arsal Mayor Basil al-Hujeiri said 3,140 refugees were registered on the lists, and were set to return in six or seven “installments.”
A group of Syrian refugees in Arsal will hold a protest in the town Friday, demanding the Syrian government grant amnesty to the refugees on its wanted list who are willing to return, local media reports said.