After the declaration of the United Nations and the European Union at the Brussels II Conference on Syria in April that included terms for the integration and resettlement of Syrian refugees in host countries including Lebanon, placing the emphasis on “voluntary return,” “the option of survival,” and “the right to work,” Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said that these ideas had not been agreed to by Lebanon.
The safe return of the Syrian refugees and displaced persons to their country of origin would be part of the new government’s ministerial statement and a key priority of its policies, he said.
At the last meeting of the Lebanese government headed by President Michel Aoun, the cabinet decided not to adopt what was stated in the Brussels II Declaration as official policy, especially since it could harm Lebanese national interests.
This was in line with the Lebanese constitution, Aoun said, as well as with Lebanon’s principled position not to make the safe and dignified return of the Syrian refugees a political solution that could be delayed ad infinitum or simply never happen, as had been the case earlier with refugees from Cyprus.
At the meeting, Aoun set out the main lines of the next phase of his mandate after achieving security and stability by eliminating terrorism in Lebanon’s eastern mountains and conducting parliamentary elections on the basis of a proportional-representation law that achieved the equitable representation of all components in the country. After that, the return of displaced Syrians to their country must begin, he said.
In the wake of the Lebanese push towards a unified policy to ensure the dignified return of the displaced people of Syria, Law 10 of this year of the Syrian People’s Assembly, the nation’s parliament, says that the Syrian government is also hastening the reconstruction process in the country in order to ensure the return of displaced people able to prove ownership of their property.
However, the 30-day period needed to do this, outlined under the law, also indicates that this will cover the return of only a few displaced persons.
In a message to his Syrian counterpart Walid Al-Mouallem, Bassil said he hoped to see “the necessary attention of the Syrian government to this issue” and expressed Lebanon’s concern over the possible negative repercussions of the law.
He said that Lebanon had no wish to see the forcible return of the Syrian refugees, as this would not be in accordance with international law, but that it did wish to see measures taken that would lead to securing the return of those who wished to do so.
In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres he also asked the UN “to do what is necessary to protect the right of displaced Syrians in order to preserve their property and to communicate with the Syrian authorities to this end.”
He said that Lebanon wished to see a comprehensive review of policies regarding the Syrian refugees and displaced persons, especially of the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since the latter had not provided information demanded by the Lebanese government and there were no accurate databases of the number of the Syrian refugees or even ways to communicate effectively with them.
The letter is in compliance with paragraph 14 of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which “underlines the urgent need to create conditions conducive to the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their areas of origin and rehabilitation of affected areas, in accordance with international law... and taking into account the interests of countries hosting the refugees.”
It remains to be seen whether the international community will agree that the only sustainable solution to the Syrian refugee crisis is to facilitate their return and economic empowerment in their home country of Syria, however.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: The necessity of return