BEIRUT: An arson attack that destroyed a Syrian refugee camp in northern Lebanon has led to widespread criticism of the Assad regime for failing to help or repatriate its displaced citizens.
In the wake of the attack that forced 370 people to flee the camp late on Saturday, Lebanese political leaders accused the Syrian regime of intimidating refugees in the country and deliberately hindering their return.
The accusations came as the Lebanese army confirmed that eight people — two Lebanese and six Syrian nationals — had been arrested in connection with the arson attack, which followed a pay dispute between Syrian workers and their Lebanese employers.
The Syrian Arab News Agency quoted an official source in the foreign ministry calling on Lebanon to “secure protection and care for the displaced Syrians.”
The official source also repeated calls for refugees “forced to leave the country by an unjust war to return to their homeland,” saying that “every effort is being made to facilitate their return.”
However, Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry said that it had received no communication from Syrian officials, either directly or through the embassy in Damascus.
Head of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt accused the Syrian regime of hypocrisy over its condemnation of the attack on the camp and calls to punish the perpetrators.
“This regime gang has destroyed entire villages and cities in Syria, and violated Lebanon with acts of terror and assassination,” he said.
However, former Hezbollah chief Sheikh Subhi Al-Tufayli said that the media campaign calling for the return of Syrian refugees “raises fears of a dirty project that aims to solve the refugee problem by handing them over to the murderous regime in Damascus.”
On Monday, UNHCR spokesman Khaled Kabbara visited the charred campsite to inspect damage.
According to the refugee agency, most of the 370 residents have since been housed in other camps in the region or have found accommodation with locals.
About 1.5 million Syrians live in Lebanon, including 1 million registered as refugees with the UN, Lebanese government figures show. However, large numbers of Syrians are also believed to have entered the country surreptitiously and are unregistered.
Syrian refugees make up 25 percent of the Lebanese population, with 17 percent living in camps, UNHCR has said.
A recent referendum showed that 96 percent of the refugees want to return to Syria as soon as they feel safe.
The social media debate over the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland included praise for Saudi Arabia following urgent assistance provided by KSrelief to residents left without shelter after Saturday’s arson attack.
Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim, told the Syrian Al-Watan newspaper that the Syrian foreign ministry had contacted the embassy to check on the refugees’ welfare.
“Some Lebanese have opened their homes to the Syrians who have lost their shelter,” he said.
The Syrian envoy also called on Lebanon to “punish those responsible and those who caused harm to the displaced Syrians.”