BEIRUT: Lebanese allies of the Syrian regime are hampering the return of refugees to Syria, caretaker Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Mouin Merehbi says.
In a recent interview with The Daily Star from his office in Downtown Beirut, Merehbi charged that the committees recently formed by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement to facilitate Syrian refugee returns were, in fact, “formed to lead to the failure of the return, because the Syrian regime doesn’t want its people to come back.”
“Why are these Syrians refugees? Partially because Hezbollah fought and killed in their area and destroyed their cities and they fled here out of fear. Today you come and say, ‘I’m Hezbollah, I want to take you back there.’ How?”
He went on to call Hezbollah a “criminal terrorist organization just like Daesh [ISIS] that is committing crimes and killing in Syria. The Syrian people’s logic is: ‘This organization killed me, so it’s not possible it will help me.’ They are scared of being massacred, or of being sent to areas other than where they are originally from in order to change the demographics of the country. And that’s what’s happening.”
BASSIL ‘LIVING IN AN IMAGINARY PLACE’
Merehbi leveled harsh criticism at Free Patriotic Movement leader and caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Even though Bassil has been vocal and insistent on the need for refugees to return, Merehbi said, “Practically, his actions work to keep them here.”
“If he really wanted refugees to go back, he would have told his ally Hezbollah to withdraw from the land they occupied that led to the exodus of these people.
“If he wanted to work on this issue, he would try to get the international community to pressure the Syrian regime, and this is within his responsibilities as a foreign minister,” Merehbi said.
Merehbi blamed Bassil for the decision to order the UNHCR to stop registering refugees in 2015.
The order led to the deterioration of reliable statistics on the number of refugees in Lebanon, which in turn hampered planning and efforts to gain international funding.
“Bassil and the Aounists [supporters of FPM founder President Michel Aoun] obstructed the whole thing – if you want to get them out, don’t you want to know how many there are?
“You speak of security threats, doesn’t this call for knowing where they live and what their needs are? If you want help from the international community, doesn’t it help to have a number so you can prove how many you have? So, you can see that what they did is illogical – there was no good reason not to register them.”
He also said Bassil had failed to lobby the international community against Syria’s mandatory conscription law, which Merehbi said was a deterrent to return because “it assures you that you or your children will be sent to the front lines to fight the regime’s enemies.”
But Bassil did send a letter to his Syrian counterpart earlier this year demanding a “fair solution” to the issue, AFP has reported.
According to Merehbi, Bassil also “put a veto on” a state policy vis-a-vis refugees, first saying he had agreed to 95 percent of a draft policy, and later saying he had been joking about his agreement.
“This is part of the mobile mental institution that they live in, and their refusal of reality. He lives in an imaginary place,” Merehbi said.
“Sadly we’re a banana republic; we weren’t able to craft a real policy on what should be done. Everyone has his own policy.”
HOW MANY SYRIAN REFUGEES ARE IN LEBANON?
For many Lebanese officials, the total number of Syrian refugees in the country “is a matter of opinion,” Merehbi said, with their figures ranging from 1.2 million to 2 million. But while statistics on refugee numbers in general are unreliable, some numbers are known.
Merehbi said that the number of refugees registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon was, as of September, 952,000, while an estimated 200,000-300,000 unregistered refugees were also in the country, down from 500,000.
The number of registered refugees had dropped from 976,000, or by 24,000 refugees, since General Security began organizing returns in June. Merehbi said that in that time, the vast majority must have returned on their own, given that a much smaller number did so through voluntary return trips organized by General Security.
The agency typically puts out an announcement when each group of returnees departs, citing the number of people going back, usually totaling several hundred.
When added up, the numbers cited in this year’s announcements totaled slightly more than 4,000 as of the end of September, The Daily Star found.
Merehbi said that now, “if you see how many refugees General Security has reported as returned, it’s not more than 7,000 or 8,000. Then suddenly they announce 90,000 – how, guys? Can someone explain this?” he said, reacting to a statement released by General Security at the beginning of November that said 87,670 Syrian refugees had returned since July.
The issue is complicated by the fact that 1.8 million Syrians enter and leave Lebanon on a regular basis every year. “How do you say this one is a refugee and this one isn’t? There’s a problem there,” he said.
Additionally, he said General Security has not shared any evidence for its numbers with any of the relevant state institutions – including the office of the prime minister.
Merehbi alleged that General Security was keeping tight-lipped about the information, “maybe because Hezbollah doesn’t want us to deal with this issue. There is definitely a political reason.”
SAFE TO RETURN?
Asked whether Syria was, as some politicians have said, safe for refugees to return to, Merehbi said one can not speak in absolutes. The Syrian people have to decide themselves, based on all the information available, and the Lebanese state has a responsibility to supply whatever information it has, he said.
“If I say it’s safe, it would have to be a percentage. If I say it’s not, then I am telling Syrians in Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan to give Syria to [President] Bashar Assad and Iran and the Russians,” he said.
He said the Syrian regime clearly did not want these people to come back, evidencing this with a message he showed The Daily Star from a Syrian refugee, relayed to him by a contact who works on facilitating returns in north Lebanon. “Without explaining the reasons, [Syria’s] National Reconciliation Committee decided that we cannot go back to Syria at all, neither can any members of our family,” the message read.
He pointed to remarks from Jamil al-Hasan, head of Syrian air force Intelligence, who was quoted as saying earlier this year: “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.”
“You have their official statements, and then you have this proof,” Merehbi said, gesturing to his phone.
REFUGEES ALLEGEDLY KILLED SINCE RETURNING
In an indication that going back is not always safe, Merehbi said earlier this month that about 20 Syrian civilians had been killed since returning. Some of them, he said, had gone back in the first-ever voluntary return organized by General Security in June, and were killed near Lebanon's northern border.
He could not provide details of the manner in which they died, but said, “It’s important to remember that these people are not with the regime or against the regime – they are simply against being killed, no more and no less.” The Daily Star was unable to independently verify Merehbi’s claims. In an apparent response, President Aoun tweeted that there was “no information on the persecution of Syrian refugees returning to their country.”
Merehbi said he was “definitely” not returning as a minister or coming back to politics, after being an MP for nine years, from 2009 to 2018, and holding the post of minister of state for nearly two.
“I’ve come to realize that you can’t achieve anything being in government,” he said.