Syrian refugees as a political card

Ola Boutros , Friday 27 Apr 2018

The international community has largely failed Syrian refugees — a conclusion made clear in the case of Lebanon

Syrian refugees queue to receive aid in Beirut
File Photo: Syrian refugees queue to receive aid in Beirut's Martyrs Square on November 26, 2017, as part of the "Dafa" campaign aimed at helping Syrian refugees (AFP)

The Syrian crisis, which generated the worst refugee crisis since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has jeopardised the stability and security of neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon.

Meanwhile, fearful of the waves of refugees and in contrast to their records of behaviour in support of human rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, EU countries have amended the Dublin Convention so as to stipulate that asylum seekers settle in the first EU country they reach and that if they move to another country they risk deportation.

Other manifestations of that fear are to be seen in Brexit and in US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration laws and his construction of a wall between the US and Mexico.

Now, as the EU hosts its second Brussels conference to support Syria and neighbouring host countries, we find that Lebanon has received only a small portion of the aid that was pledged to it last year.

This year, Lebanon will be asking for $4 billion, but it is unlikely that it will obtain half that amount. Nor can Beirut afford to take out loans in order to support the refugees.

The financial repercussions of the refugee crisis on Lebanon have already been enormous. The national treasury has had to sustain up to $18 billion so far.

Accordingly, Lebanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil has adopted the following position:

- The financial aid must be channelled through the Lebanese government, not through international NGOs.

- The aid must be distributed equitably between the Syrians and Lebanese on the principle of division of responsibility with the international community.

- The aid must be furnished to displaced persons in the country of origin in order to facilitate their safe and dignified return home.

The foregoing is informed by two factors.

Firstly, 80 per cent of Syrian refugees have expressed a desire to return home, according to Christophe Martin, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Lebanon, during discussions with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

The voluntary return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has been on the rise. In 2017, some 11,000 returned to Syria.

Recently, 500 persons displaced by the Syrian war returned from Shebaa to Beit Jinn on the outskirts of Damascus.

Secondly, the situation has stabilised in 13 out of Syria’s 14 provinces. Idlib remains unstable.

Covering an area of 6,100 km square, this province accounts for only 3.29 per cent of Syrian territory. The portions of Syria neighbouring Lebanon, however, are currently stable.

Homs province, which makes up 22.8 per cent of Syria, is four times the size of Lebanon.

The international community is using displaced persons as a political card. It states that they should return only in the event of a political solution.

This is not consistent with Lebanon’s interests, especially given that the bulk of Syrian refugees are categorised as economic refugees. These move freely back and forth between Syria and Lebanon and their return will not pose a serious risk to their lives.

Unfortunately, the international community, through the auspices of the UN High Commission for Refugees, has played a detrimental role by instilling fear among Syrian refugees who wish to return home.

The Lebanese Foreign Ministry was therefore forced to issue a statement deploring the dismal international performance, requiring the Lebanese government to re-evaluate UN involvement in view of the dubious circumstances governing its work.

The question now is: Where is the commission’s plan to enable host countries to safeguard their security and stability if it does not intend to help host countries settle displaced persons and offer them the necessary services for their survival in Lebanon?

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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