BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil criticized the United Nations and European Union Thursday after the international bodies released a joint statement using unprecedented language regarding Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The statement published on the EU website “stressed the need to ensure that any evacuation of civilians must be safe, informed, temporary, voluntary in nature and a solution of last resort including the destination of their choice, the right to return and the choice to stay, as per IHL [international humanitarian law].”
Aoun said the statement posed a threat to the country due to its allusion to settling Syrian refugees in Lebanon. That refugees should have the “choice to stay” in Lebanon marked a shift in the position of the international bodies, which previously acknowledged the country was hosting displaced Syrians on a temporary basis.
“I declare my rejection to the statement issued by the [EU and U.N.], including what was stated on ‘voluntary return,’ ‘temporary return,’ ‘choice to stay,’ and ‘integration in the labor market,’ and other words that contradict the sovereignty and laws of the Lebanese state,” a statement released by the presidency quoted Aoun as saying.
The president described the statement as an infringement of Lebanese sovereignty and contrary to its Constitution, which refuses the resettlement of any refugees on Lebanese territory.
“Lebanon is committed to the political solution in Syria and the return of the refugees cannot be linked to this solution,” Aoun said, in an apparent reference to where the joint statement claimed that conditions for returns, “as defined by the UNHCR and according to international refugee law standards, are not yet fulfilled.”
Aoun voiced his belief that the only solution to the Syria crisis was the safe and dignified return of Syrian refugees to “the possible areas inside Syria ... as there are many areas [there] that are safe,” and called for the international community to remember that Lebanon is dealing with the refugee crisis based on “brotherly ties and humanitarian obligation.”
Speaker Nabih Berri also released a statement Thursday evening “completely rejecting” the EU-U.N. statement, in his name and that of the Parliament, saying it “divides the Syrian people and land.”
Earlier in the day, Bassil had launched a scathing attack on the international community saying, “no one can give [Lebanon] lessons” on dealing with the refugee crisis, “because all of them combined have not carried the burden the way we have.”
Speaking after a Cabinet session at the presidential palace, Bassil specifically called out the EU and the U.N. over the statement.
“Lebanon had nothing to do with [this statement],” he said, adding that the international community is “relaxed and comfortable because no one is confronting them.”
Lebanon has hosted the largest number of refugees per capita since the influx of Syrians fleeing the conflict in their country that started in 2011. The latest UNHCR figure puts the number of those registered just under 1 million, but government officials claim the actual figure is 1.5 million. The population increase has strained Lebanon’s already struggling services and infrastructure.
Since Aoun’s election, the government has been divided over the method of how refugees should return – whether through direct contact with the Syrian government or coordination with the U.N. However, Bassil appealed for Lebanon to unite in rejection of any attempts to resettle refugees on Lebanese soil. Bassil went on to say that “every time Lebanon gets close to its [breaking point] in regards to the refugees,” the international community holds another donor conference “to garner money that we don’t even get,” in an effort to keep refugees inside the country.
But he was quick to reject any criticism that claimed the Lebanese do not care about the safe return of refugees. “We have accepted the refugees with open arms and because we lived [through our own] war, we know what it means and know how to deal with it.” Bassil added that criticism of Lebanon’s policies toward refugees was unfair. “Go see in Europe how they’re dealing with refugees, how they’re pretty much kicking them out,” he said. “All we are requesting from the international community is to stop encouraging Syrians to stay in Lebanon and preventing them from returning to Syria.”
Bassil said that if the international community wants to help, “they can sit with us and organize the respectful and safe return for Syrian refugees.”
The international community believes refugees have nothing to return to, he said, so “their policy is for them to remain in Lebanon as they [the international community] are refusing [to accept] that there are safe zones in Syria.”
Last week, UNHCR released a statement criticizing the return of some 500 Syrian refugees to their homeland from Lebanon. “UNHCR went crazy and released a statement to scare them [the refugees]. Where is the international community taking us? What do they want ... sectarian strife?” Bassil said.
“Lebanon deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. [The international community] is essentially telling people that they can’t rebuild their homes,” he said.