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GENEVA — The U.N. refugee agency said Friday that nearly a half-million people who were displaced within Syria due to its civil war have returned to their homes, pointing to a “notable trend of spontaneous returns” this year.

UNHCR says aid agencies estimate that more than 440,000 internally displaced people, or IDPs, and another 31,000 refugees who had fled abroad have returned home.

The agency’s spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says “this is a significant trend, and a significant number.” However, he cautioned that this was “only a fraction” of an estimated 5 million Syrian refugees abroad.

Mahecic said those returning have gone back mostly to Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Damascus and other governorates, mainly to seek out family members, check on property or benefit from “a real or perceived improvement in security conditions.”

In comments to the U.N. Security Council this week, the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, noted a recent decline in overall violence in Syria.

Mahecic said international diplomatic efforts in Geneva and Astana, Kazakhstan, to help bring peace to Syria after more than 6 years of civil war had provided hope to some displaced Syrians, but added it would be “premature” to link the peace efforts to the recent returns.

“The decisions are very individual and based on people’s own perceptions of the situation in their areas of origin,” he said in an e-mail.