Lebanon seeks gradual repatriation of Syrian refugees
Beirut - Overwhelmed by the presence of 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees and struggling to make ends meet despite limited international assistance, Lebanon came up with a new option to alleviate the burden of hosting such a great number of displaced on its territories: Their gradual repatriation to safe areas inside Syria and relocation to other countries. With no political settlement of the Syria war in sight and battles raging again, such an option is hard to materialise.
It was put on the table by Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who warned the UN General Assembly that Lebanon was on the verge of collapse.
He urged the international community to alleviate the burden of the refugees by moving them to other countries or securing their “safe and honourable” return to Syria.
Returning to Syria is the best option for refugees, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative in Lebanon Mireille Girard. However, conditions inside Syria should be safe enough for them to return.
“It is very important to have a political agreement in Syria because this is what will guarantee that ceasefire or cessation of hostilities will last,” Girard said.
“The situation in Syria at the moment is extremely volatile and unpredictable and only with a political dialogue we will have some sort of predictability, some ground that will make people confident that it is safe for them to return.”
A ceasefire devised under a US-Russian deal did not hold for more than a few days, dampening hopes for renewed UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon are as eager to return home as the Lebanese are to see them leave, Girard said, adding: “This is what all the refugees want really. They dream of going back to Syria… It is always better to return to your country while you can safely do so.”
Until it is possible for the refugees to go back safely to Syria, solutions are being explored to share the burden of the crisis on Lebanon. Globally, UNHCR estimates that at least 10% of refugees in the world need to be resettled in a third country, the equivalent of 100,000 from Lebanon.
“The number of countries offering places for refugees currently in Lebanon has doubled in the past few years. It is encouraging but not enough. We have offers for 20,000 people but we would like to resettle many more than this,” Girard said.
From 2011-15, about 40,000 refugees were submitted for resettlement consideration from Lebanon and more than 20,500 of them have left the country.
UNHCR is also encouraging other kinds of departures, such fellowships, family reunions, temporary work permits and temporary humanitarian visas, under which the refugees would be hosted in other countries for up to five years.
Although it is a major humanitarian issue, finding solutions to the Syrian refugee crisis, described as the worst since the second world war, necessitates cooperation and goodwill by all involved, according to Imad Salameh, professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University (LAU).
“Repatriating the Syrian refugees is feasible provided the UN takes a proactive role with the support of the Security Council by establishing safe zones inside Syria under exclusive UN monitoring and protection,” Salameh said.
“It is a political decision and it requires the resolve and will of all members of the Security Council, particularly Russia. However, it (repatriation) cannot be done, as some Lebanese politicians suggested, by dividing refugees into loyalist and non-loyalists and settling them accordingly,” he added.
Lebanese Labour Minister Sejaan Azzi proposed repatriating refugees in several phases, starting with individuals who were not forcibly displaced. Under the proposed plan, which heavily relies on the ability of international powers — namely Russia and the United States — to secure a sustainable ceasefire and safe zones that Syrians can return to, the refugees would have the option to head to a safe zone or another area of their choice.
Salameh contended that safe zones could be established in Syria, including areas on the border with Turkey or in Qalamoun, adjacent to the border with Lebanon. “Why not? If they are under UN protection and there is no threat by the Syrian regime or the opposition… no-fly zones with no military personnel from either side,” he said.
According to Girard, Lebanon’s call on the international community to share the responsibility of refugees “is a very legitimate request” in view of their large number in such a small country.
She said the international community can help by giving additional support to Lebanon through investment in durable infrastructure projects that will benefit local communities even after the refugees are gone.
“The UN’s clear objective is to make sure the refugees have the condition that would enable them to return home. This is what they want, what the international community wants, and what the government and people of Lebanon want,” Girard said.
Commenting on Lebanese fears that refugees could remain in Lebanon, Girard argued that it is the state’s decision to give refugees or migrants the right to stay permanently.
“It is a sovereign decision and not one that the international community can decide for Lebanon,” she said. “This is not something that can be imposed by the outside world and the position of Lebanon in this regard has been made very clear by the government.”