Samia Shaqa last week packed up the single concrete room she and her husband have called home for the past four years to return to her native Syria.
“There is no life here,” said Ms Shaqa, leaning against the boxes and bags filled with clothes and household goods in the Lebanese border town of Arsal. The couple fled their Syrian village as President Bashar al-Assad’s army advanced five years ago.
But in Lebanon they only have electricity for about 12 hours a day and the room is too hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Ms Shaqa’s husband, Shaher Abdo Al Khader, is not allowed to work and they have barely scraped by on savings and the minimal aid offered by humanitarian organisations and the UN. Mr Khader showed pictures of their home in the Syrian village of Jrajeer, with its many rooms and expansive garden, just 15 kilometres away on the other side of the border.
Ms Shaqa and Mr Khader have signed up to a controversial Lebanese programme that returns refugees to Syria.
More than 3,000 Syrians, most of them living in Arsal, have this year registered for the scheme, and 300 returned home last week alone. Critics say conditions in Lebanon are so poor that the refugees are effectively being forced out and that, despite reassurances from Damascus, it is unclear what awaits them on their return.
Before the Syrian war, Asral had a population of just 40,000 but now hosts about 60,000 Syrians in informal camps of tents and cinder block buildings. Rima Krounbi, the deputy mayor of Arsal, said this has put an impossible strain on the town and there have been clashes between local residents and refugees.
Lebanon hosts about 1m Syrian refugees, almost one-quarter of the tiny Mediterranean country’s population. Lebanese politicians have increasingly made it clear that staying in Lebanon long-term is not an option for the refugees.
“We cannot wait for a political solution [to the war in Syria],” said Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s minister of foreign affairs, on a visit to Arsal last month. “The return of the displaced will create the solution.”
The Assad regime now controls most of Syria and fighting is restricted to a few fronts. But humanitarian groups say that does not make the returns safe.
“It’s difficult to pronounce any area safe,” said Bassam Khawaja of Human Rights Watch.
In recent weeks, more than 250,000 Syrians have fled a military offensive in the south-west of the country, according to the UN.
Applicants need to be first approved by Damascus, which has assured returnees they will face “no legal consequences”, according to Ms Krounbi, implying they will not be arrested when they cross the border. The government has also promised a six-month reprieve from military conscription, something that many Syrian men wanted to avoid and prompted them to flee the country.
But it is difficult to trust guarantees from the Syrian government, said Mr Khawaja, because Damascus has arrested thousands of political opponents, torturing many to death.
While everyone the Financial Times spoke to said they were returning to Syria voluntarily, all complained of conditions in Lebanon. Financial and food aid has dwindled and many families are not able to send their children to school.
Arsal was overrun by Isis and other militants in 2014 and the Lebanese army regularly raided the informal camps housing Syrians. “If people are going back because of the conditions in Lebanon,” said Mr Khawaja, “that’s not a voluntary return.”
Syrian state media showed photos of cars and trucks, filled with people and their belongings, entering Syria at the Zamrani border crossing, adorned with Syrian flags and the flags of Mr Assad’s Ba’ath party.
For the Syrian government, images of refugees voluntarily returning home bolster the claim that Mr Assad has won the war and is re-establishing control and security in the country. But little is known about the fate of those who returned in April, and many are still too nervous to leave.
“We don’t know our destiny. We don’t know what will happen to us,” said Abu Qusai, who asked not to use his full name. Abu Qusai’s brother sent him photos of his house, now destroyed by a rocket. Areas reclaimed by the government months ago are still without basic services. If they cross the border, the family would lose the minimal UN assistance they have.
But, more crucially, Abu Qusai and two of his sons are of military age and face conscription to Mr Assad’s army should they return to Syria. “No one can guarantee that I will not be drafted,” said Abu Qusai.
While Ms Shaqa has returned home, her husband’s application has yet to be approved. “I’m just waiting to hear,” said Mr Khader by phone last week, confirming that his wife had reached Syria. “And I will join her.”
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