BEIRUT: Interior Minister Raya El Hassan and other officials hit back at Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil over the weekend after he called on municipalities to contribute to the return of refugees.
Hassan said Sunday that the role of municipalities and other measures related to the Syrian refugee crisis were determined by Cabinet, which was the suitable place for discussions to solve the crisis.
Bassil, who is also the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, had said every municipality was able to ensure the return of refugees by “implementing the law and protecting public order,” during an FPM event for municipalities Saturday.
The FPM leader said no person or party “or even the Interior Ministry could prevent a mayor from doing his job in upholding the law regarding the issue of displacement, and security agencies must back the municipalities.” But Hassan said in a statement that while there was a consensus on the regulation of labor and the shutting of shops operating illegally, the refugee issue could not be discussed with “a populist background, and for personal and partisan causes.”
Solving the crisis must be done “through the state’s constitutional institutions, especially the Interior and Municipalities Ministry, which is the ministry that regulates the work of municipalities and maintains public order within each [municipality’s] boundaries,” the statement added.
Bassil claimed there was a “conspiracy” to settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with groups encouraging the refugees to stay and “attacking us for calling for their return.”
In response to claims of racism, Bassil said raising the issue of refugee returns was “not racist or fascist, and those accusing us of racism are either benefiting [from the refugees’ stay] or are conspirators.”
Shortly after Bassil’s remarks, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt tweeted a picture of actor Charlie Chaplin from his movie “The Great Dictator,” a parody of Adolf Hitler.
“Is this a conference for municipalities to discuss balanced development and the upcoming garbage crisis or is it a conference for racism and buried hostilities?” Joumblatt said.
Joumblatt also asked to know the position of “the partner in the settlement and leadership,” likely referring to Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the 2016 political settlement that resulted in President Michel Aoun’s election and Hariri’s return to the premiership.
Former MP Ammar Houri, an adviser to Hariri, told The Daily Star Sunday that Bassil could not, as foreign minister or head of a party, give instructions to municipalities.
“Mayors are the under the authority of governors and the Interior Ministry. ... This is a foreign minister and he has nothing to do with municipalities,” Houri said.Regarding the refugees, he said the government had approved a plan to solve the crisis that included a Russian initiative and coordination with the international community.
“All the Lebanese unanimously agree on solving the refugee crisis ... [Bassil’s] remarks could only be understood as racist,” Houri added.
Bassil has repeatedly called on the international community to help in returning refugees to their homeland without waiting for a political solution to the yearslong conflict in Syria.
He called Saturday for safe and dignified returns.
The FPM, an ally of Damascus, has called for direct talks with Syria to resolve the refugee issue. The PSP, Hariri’s Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces are highly critical of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and advocate for finding a political solution to the conflict before any direct talks can be held.
General Security head Abbas Ibrahim said Saturday that the safe return of refugees awaited a “big political decision” that was not yet present in Lebanon, which was why the agency had been facilitating their voluntary return. He told Sawt al-Mada radio station that a Russian envoy who is set to arrive in Beirut this week had expressed readiness to work with any group to secure the return of refugees.
Last July, Russia announced its initiative to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland. The proposal was welcomed by Lebanon.
However, it has remained on hold due to several reasons, including the question of funding and the prospects for cooperation among the international community to make it work.
General Security has been organizing returns and facilitating procedures for Syrian refugees who want to return on their own. This has made possible the return of tens of thousands of refugees since last summer.
The UNHCR puts the number of registered refugees in Lebanon as of May 2019 at more than 935,000. However, the Lebanese government estimates the total number to be more than 1.5 million.
Bassil also claimed Saturday that births among Syrian refugees exceeded those of the Lebanese and that weapons were found “in the smallest of [refugee] camps.”
Nasser Yassin, research director at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute and co-chair of AUB4Refugees Initiative, told The Daily Star that for 2018, according to Health Ministry figures, the number of births for Lebanese was 68,947. For non-Lebanese, including Palestinians and Syrians, the number was 58,196. He said that the number of Syrian births from 2011 to 2018 was recorded with the UNHCR at around 175,000. Although not all refugees are registered with the UNHCR, he said 97 percent of births happened in hospitals and were therefore recorded.
Regarding weapons, Yassin said the claim was exaggerated, “since camps are under the close eye of security agencies. It’s really unrealistic or there would be chaos in the country.”
Later Saturday, General Security released a statement accusing some organizations and forums of increasing their activity on the Syrian refugee issue and turning it into a political subject.
While the statement did not clarify who exactly these organizations were or to whom they belonged, it said they had people “hanging out with [a] politician, embassy or both.”
General Security could not be reached for comment.