BEIRUT: Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said Monday that Lebanon was considering closing its borders with Syria. “The Lebanese government sees no objection in taking any decisions or actions that will protect Lebanese territory and Lebanese people and guests [residing] in its territories,” Derbas told reporters following a meeting of the ministerial committee tasked with following up on the Syrian refugee crisis.
All nations would consider closing their borders if national security was at risk, Derbas said.
The issue of moving refugees, who are currently spread across the country, into more regulated settlements was also discussed, he said.
Government officials agreed that the number of refugees in Lebanon must be reduced, he said.
Later, Derbas told The Daily Star that “serious proposals,” including those concerning the Lebanon-Syria border would be discussed at a ministerial meeting Thursday.
“I believe there will be new solutions by Thursday,” he said.
Anita Delhaas-van Dijk, the director of World Vision’s Lebanon operations, said that the borders must remain open to cope with the ongoing humanitarian disaster. “The problem, of course, is if we close the borders many of these refugees will not be able to come to safety. We would not be wanting that to happen,” she stressed.
The possibility of a closed border would mark a major policy shift in Lebanon’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Derbas also emphasized the importance of a new statute that was officially enacted on July 1.
“For a refugee to be accepted in Lebanon ... he must come from a town or village near the Lebanese border where there are active battles,” Derbas reiterated. “And any Syrian who can return safely to Syria must automatically be stripped of his refugee status,” he said.
At the meeting, Derbas cited communication between Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali as having played a crucial role in resolving the issue.
Derbas said Ali stressed that there were no obstacles facing Syrian refugees returning home.
The UNHCR, however, believes that the ongoing violence in Syria precludes most refugees’ return.
“UNHCR considers the current situation in Syria as not conducive to the safe return of refugees and we therefore do not encourage or facilitate their return. Should a refugee wish to voluntarily return to Syria, UNHCR will not impede their return,” said Mona Monzer, a UNHCR spokesperson.
Monzer described the refugee agency’s relationship with the Social Affairs Ministry as a “close working partnership,” and said the two were actively coordinating on the Syrian refugee issue.
The situation of refugees in Lebanon has been under close review since the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal came under siege last week by militants. Many have accused refugees in Arsal of harboring the militants.
In the wake of last week’s clashes between the militants and Lebanese security forces, several thousand Syrian refugees who had been living in tented settlements fled the area. A convoy of 2,000 of the refugees attempted to return to Syria last Thursday night, but was stalled for two days alongside a highway near the border because they lacked the proper paperwork.
By Sunday morning, however, all 2,000 refugees in the convoy had crossed the border.