BEIRUT: Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Friday renewed his call for Syrian refugees to return to their homeland, despite a warning from a US State Department official that the time was “not ripe” for them to leave.
According to the UNHCR, the number of Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon has decreased to 890,000 following the voluntary return of hundreds to their country.
Lebanon believes that its Syrian refugee population has had repercussions on various sectors, in addition to racking up a hefty bill in a country facing severe economic difficulties.
“Lebanon insists on the return of refugees to the safe areas in Syria that are not witnessing any fighting, especially since the Syrian state welcomes their return and pledges to procure them the needed support and care ... those who have already returned were not treated badly in Lebanon based on records of international organizations,” Aoun told Christophe Martin, who is head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon.
The government has approved a plan for their return.
It said that the plan was aimed at preventing the politicization of this “humanitarian act,” especially since Syrian refugees constituted a third of Lebanon’s total population. There was a need to find a national solution that addressed the concerns of the Lebanese people, and the dignity of Syrian refugees, while respecting the principle of prohibiting their settlement at a time when Lebanon was passing through a “critical economic, social, and security situation,” it added.
David Schenker, head of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the US State Department, said the US was committed to helping Lebanon “shoulder the burden” of refugees on its soil through continued humanitarian assistance.
“Unfortunately, the time is not ripe now for these refugees to return to their country,” he warned. “It is not acceptable for them to return unless this is done in full safety and dignity, and voluntarily. The United States fully appreciates Lebanon’s endurance in providing refugees with their basic needs.”
The plan viewed the return of Syrian refugees as being supported by facts and data, including the “improving security situation” in Syria, and UNHCR statistics that stated at least 89 percent of the refugees wished to return to their country. It was also based on the Syrian state “welcoming the return of all Syrians” and its readiness to make all that is needed to facilitate the return process.
Dr. Nasser Yassin, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut, said the government was focusing its plan on the return of refugees whereas previously it had dealt with issues related to their stay in Lebanon and ways to support them.
“But this paper depicts the Syrian regime as welcoming the return of the refugees, which is not true,” he told Arab News. “Usually, people are displaced from their countries for reasons related to political or military conflicts. People will only return to their country when reconciliation and reconstruction are secured, and this has not happened yet.”
Abu Ahmed Saiba, head of the "Syrian Refugee Voice in Lebanon" committee, said that refugees had not yet seen the return plan that had been approved by the Lebanese government. “We want to return today before tomorrow, but the issue is complicated,” he told Arab News. “It is true that the economic situation in Lebanon is bad, but the situation in Syria is much worse, and we receive a lot of information about the spread of the new coronavirus with a lot of cases and a rising death toll.”
Saiba said refugees received financial and in-kind assistance. “We know families that left for Syria and returned to Lebanon afterwards due to the poor economic situation in Syria and their inability to sustain the situation,” he added.
The border between Lebanon and Syria remains closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It is being opened intermittently for Lebanese people returning to their country, and Syrian authorities are receiving people coming from Lebanon, including thousands of non-refugee workers and students provided they perform a PCR test before entering Syrian territories.