Stay or go? Many Syrian refugees face a life-changing choice

BEIRUT: As the bus pulled out of a Beirut car park heading for Damascus, Ahmed Shaikh waved from the window, excited, he said, to be returning home to Syria after years as a refugee in Lebanon.
Shaikh and his two sons are part of a steady trickle of refugees going back as the Syrian government tightens its grip on areas it controls and the prospect of new fighting recedes.
But not everyone wants to go home just yet. While Beirut says 90,000 Syrians have returned this year, more than a million remain in Lebanon, including many who fear reprisals or army conscription, or whose homes were destroyed in the war.
In a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, Abu Ibrahim recalled how government shellfire had obliterated his home town, saying it was too dangerous to return to Syria while Bashar al Assad remains president.
Whether the millions of refugees outside Syria, like Shaikh and Abu Ibrahim, will return to areas where fighting has ended is becoming a pressing issue in the country and abroad.
Assad now controls most of Syria and the front lines appear stable for now between government territory and two big enclaves in the north and east still outside Damascus’ control.
The refugees’ fate is important to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which have each buckled under the strain of hosting so many, but also to Europe, where the refugee crisis has caused political ructions. It will play a critical role in shaping Syria’s own gradual economic recovery too.
About half Syria’s pre-war population fled after war broke out in 2011, 6.3 million of them as refugees abroad and 6 million displaced in their own country. Many were forced to flee numerous times.
About a million remain in Lebanon, 3.6 million in Turkey and nearly 700,000 in Jordan, the UNHCR said. One million Syrian children have been born in exile as refugees since the crisis began.
The agency said on Tuesday that up to 250,000 Syrian refugees were expected to go home next year, while around 37,000 returned in 2018, a figure its officials say may not be complete.
For Shaikh, 46, the decision to return came after a legal problem in Lebanon. His residency permit had expired and he faced a large fine. Police told him he would not have to pay if he agreed to return to Syria.
Still, with the war calmer, he was happy to be going. “There is security here, but living conditions are hard. There is not much work and everything is very expensive,” he said.
Returning is complicated. Syrian security checks on those who seek to come back can take weeks. Not all are approved. Important documents may have been lost. Young children may have no passport at all. — Reuters