Lebanon News

UNHCR chief sets out plans for return of political refugees

BEIRUT: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Friday he intended to negotiate political amnesties to enable political refugees to return to Syria, and would advocate for resettlement in third countries for those for whom this was not an option. Grandi was speaking at a news conference at the end of a regional tour to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

“One of the main purposes of my regional tour is to go to the [Brussels conference] and remind donor countries that it is very important to support Lebanon, Jordan [and] Turkey,” Grandi said, referring to the international conference set to be held in Brussels in the spring that will focus on support for Syrian refugees and the countries that host them. He called the Syrian civil war a “colossal human tragedy.”

“What does it mean to support? It means to continue to provide humanitarian assistance for the refugees ... but it means also to support Lebanon: Lebanese institutions and Lebanese communities, especially in the areas that are hosting large numbers of refugees.”

The commissioner said that certain areas of Lebanon’s infrastructure needed major investment to allow them to deal with the burden of hosting Syrian refugees.

Discussing a visit to the Bekaa Valley he made Thursday, Grandi said local mayors had been very accommodating of refugees, but stressed that their water systems were struggling to cope. Grandi said this was an example of where international aid to Lebanon could provide lasting benefits to local communities.

Grandi conceded that a solution to the refugee crisis in Lebanon would not happen immediately.

“When the situation stabilizes a bit more in Syria, [returns] will be gradual. It will not be that 5 million will just drop everything and just go back,” he said.

He also noted that some refugees faced more barriers to going back than others.

“For some, it may be that, ‘I need my house to be fixed,’ or ‘I need my property to be guaranteed,’ and that is a bit easier to address,” he said. Others may be “worried to go back to a situation in which their absence from the country may be interpreted as a political gesture.”

But some refugees, he said, might have “opposed this government or whoever will be in charge of the area they go back to, and this may be a problem for them.

“They may take more time, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Senior Lebanese officials have made it clear that they see the permanent settlement of refugees in Lebanon as unacceptable. President Michel Aoun, speaking to the U.N. General Assembly in September last year, said, “Lebanon will not allow the settlement of any refugee or displaced on its territories.”

Grandi emphasized, however, that the UNHCR was taking measures to enable as many as possible to return to Syria.

“We will have to negotiate amnesties and we will have to negotiate protection guarantees. Will we get them? I don’t know. Will we try that? We will,” he said.

Such guarantees have been cited by refugees as essential to any return to Syria. One, who asked not to be named, told The Daily Star in Bar Elias last November, “We want guarantees of safety and rights. Otherwise who guarantees that if I go back to Syria no one will arrest me?”

For those unable to return, Grandi said he would advocate for further third-country resettlement outside Lebanon, although he conceded that the number of Syrians resettled from the country last year – 12,600 – was “disappointing.”

Despite the almost total reduction in the number of Syrians resettled in the United States, Grandi said he would try to persuade the U.S. to restart their refugee resettlement program “once they have ... checks in place. ... Meanwhile we’re negotiating with other countries because for some people, in the end, [resettlement] may be the only solution.”

During the press conference Grandi also passionately defended his organization’s record in Syria, and fiercely criticized what he described as the “political” side of the U.N.

He noted that many had described images from the Syrian government of dead children wrapped in UNHCR sheeting in Eastern Ghouta as “the symbol of the humanitarian failure,” adding: “I reject that. I think this is the symbol of the political failure.”

Grandi said that in Syria the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations had acquitted themselves as well as might be expected. However, he said: “The U.N. as an institution – meaning the Security Council, the member states of the U.N. – have failed spectacularly.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 10, 2018, on page 3.

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