By Antoine Abou-Diwan
BEIRUT: The question of returning Syrian refugees living in Lebanon to their home country was again in the spotlight Monday with ministers and parties articulating conflicting messages after an attack on an army unit last week.
Speaking with local media early in the day, Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Mouin Merehbi insisted that Syrian refugees should be repatriated only in coordination with the United Nations.
“The Syrian regime is criminal,” Merehbi said in an interview with Voice of Lebanon radio (100.5).
“Calls to coordinate with the Syrian government in order to solve the refugee crisis are an invitation to refloat the criminal regime that, to this day, still has some of Lebanon’s finest youth detained.”
However, a coalition of pro-Syrian groups that includes Hezbollah released a statement calling for the Lebanese government to coordinate with the Syrian regime on refugee and security matters. In a statement, the coalition called on the Lebanese government to open “channels of communication with the Syrian government to deal with the issue of displaced Syrians” as well as security and military coordination to target militant sleeper cells “which threaten the security of the two countries.”
A high-ranking Lebanese Forces source dismissed the calls for coordination as an effort by Syria’s allies in Lebanon to give the regime in Damascus legitimacy it no longer has.
“There is no Syrian government on the ground,” the source told The Daily Star. “The Syrian government lacks both international and Arab legitimacy. It also lacks legitimacy within Syria because most of the Syrian people are against it.” The solution for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is through the United Nations, either by establishing safe areas in Syria “or by returning Syrians to areas that have restored stability,” he added.
The long-stated position of U.N. representatives on the matter is that the return of refugees to their home country must comply with international law that prevents forced pushbacks. International officials have expressed concern over so-called “safe zones” as a potential magnet for violence, and called for refugees to be able to return home voluntarily and with safety and dignity.The flurry of statements came after an attack on a Lebanese Army patrol as it carried out a pre-emptive strike on militants in two Syrian refugee camps on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal Friday.
Seven soldiers were wounded in the operation when five suicide bombers targeted units from the Lebanese Army’s Airborne Regiment. A refugee girl as well as the suicide bombers died in the violence. The Army detained 360 suspected militants in the wake of Friday’s dawn raid.
There are 1.01 million Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon but authorities put the actual number at around 1.5 million. The influx has strained Lebanon’s already battered infrastructure and economy.
Friday’s attacks on the Army also stoked long-running fears that refugee settlements are being used as footholds for militants to launch strikes on targets across Lebanon. Free Patriotic Movement officials Sunday said militants were using the Syrian refugee crisis as a cover for attempts to destabilize Lebanon. “Terrorism is using [Syrian] displacement as a cover for its acts. Therefore, we must boldly address displacement through a decisive decision by Lebanese state [institutions],” Foreign Minister and FPM leader Gebran Bassil said during a meeting with locals in south Lebanon’s Aramta village in the district of Jezzine.
The same day, FPM MP Walid Khoury called for the return of Syrian refugees to their country to minimize security incidents in Lebanon. “The only solution [to security breaches] is through the return of the [Syrian] refugees to their country,” Khoury said in an interview with Voice of Lebanon (93.3), adding, “The camps might become an enabling environment for terrorists.”
In a deal brokered between Hezbollah and Syrian rebel factions in Qalamoun, dozens of Syrian families departed Arsal in June for the Aasal al-Ward area northeast of Damascus. That deal was part of a broader Hezbollah effort to mediate with the Syrian government and rebel factions the return of refugees to areas it would guarantee as “safe zones.”
The office of the United Nations Special Coordinator in Lebanon Sigrid Kaag could not be reached for comment Monday. However, Kaag discussed the matter in Bkirki with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai. “We ... talked about the importance of finding a political solution regarding the Syrian refugee crisis, in order to ease the return of Syrians back to their home country in the right time and security conditions,” a statement from Rai’s office said.
Meanwhile, Future MP Ammar Houri said in an interview with Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3) that Lebanese politicians had reached an “understanding” on how to solve the refugee crisis. “There is an understanding between [political] forces to solve the displaced Syrians’ case, as we wait on what happens inside Syria,” he said without giving further details.
This story first appeared in The Daily Star, July 4, 2017.