BEIRUT: Buckling under the burden of sustained political deadlock and more than 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon must confront a number of challenges if it is to avoid plunging into chaos, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas told The Daily Star Tuesday.
Derbas does not hesitate when asked what poses the biggest threat to Lebanon today.
“Anarchy,” said the former lawyer and poet flatly, as he ran his fingers through a strand of yellow prayer beads. “The situation is critical.”
In particular, the presence of more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the country has compounded a host of national issues, from unemployment to security, Derbas said.
While the Social Affairs Ministry has been one of the key parties negotiating a policy to help curb number of Syrian refugees in the country, the task has been wrought with political discord, Derbas added.
“I don’t think the political parties agree on how to treat the [refugee] problem,” Derbas said.
“They agree on a diagnostic level, but in terms of treatment, there is no agreement.”
Rare harmony, however, has emerged within the divided Cabinet over the importance of establishing a national strategy to deal with the refugee crisis, which has thus far been managed largely by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and humanitarian organizations.
“It must be us, in our capacity as the Lebanese government, who decide who is a refugee and who is not. Not the UNHCR,” the minister said.
“The goal is to be in charge, but to have the UNHCR as a good, solid partner.”
In recent weeks, the Lebanese government has seemed to refocus efforts toward facilitating the voluntary repatriation of refugees in Syria. Over the weekend, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk announced that outstanding “residency-related fines” would be waived for Syrians seeking permanent return to their country, and “special lines” would be created at border crossings to facilitate their repatriation.
“Now we are trying to facilitate the return of Syrian to their country where there are no fights,” confirmed Machnouk.
“We don’t know how much the Syrian government is ready to receive them and provide them with the valid care, but there is communication between the Syrian ambassador and the foreign minister, to find out what their fate will be.”
“But, there is also the fact that many Syrians are at odds with their government and do not wish to go back ... It’s a really tricky and complicated problem,” he added.
Still, he stressed that the Lebanese government was not involved in discussions with the Syrian government or the opposition regarding the repatriation of refugees.
Syrian refugees are currently spread across the country, residing in rented homes, squats and 1,250 informal tented settlements.
Since May, Derbas has called for establishing “reception centers” along the Syrian-Lebanese border where refugees would stay in “pre-fabricated homes.”
These centers would operate under strict health, security and humanitarian standards, he reiterated.
Derbas expresses particular concern over the number of young, male refugees in Lebanon, many of whom have military training. “There are no less than 100,000 of them,” he claimed. “That’s more than the Lebanese Army ... We can only imagine what would happen if they took up arms.”
The issue has become particularly relevant in the wake of clashes between armed militants and Lebanese security forces in Arsal earlier this month, which resulted in the death of 18 members of the Lebanese security forces.
Asked about ongoing negotiations to secure the release of Lebanese soldiers and Internal Security Forces members held hostage by terrorist groups in Arsal, Derbas said he was not involved.
“Frankly, I don’t want to know any information about it,” he said.
“For their security, it’s better that these negotiations happen behind the scenes.”
Still, Derbas said that the clashes that took place in Arsal between armed militants and the Lebanese security forces are unlikely to be repeated elsewhere in the country.
“Arsal is unique. It’s isolated and close to battlefields on the Syrian side,” he added.
With a smile, he dismissed concerns about the stability of Tripoli where several suspected terrorists have been arrested in recent raids.
“These are fictive concerns,” he noted. “Tripoli is a peaceful city by the sea. The sea prevents any city from becoming isolated,” he added, waxing poetic.
As long as Lebanon lacks a complete government, however, managing the refugee crisis and national security will prove difficult, if not impossible, Derbas cautioned.
“The beginning of a solution is electing a president,” he said. “Without a president, it’s not a fully functional country.”
As Parliament’s mandate comes to a close and the president’s office remains vacant, Derbas said Lebanon is entering a grim unknown. “We’re heading toward a state of political void ... We’re really in unchartered territory.
“There are all these little fires across Lebanon. Each time we’ve been able to extinguish them, but for how long?”