BEIRUT: Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil Friday warned against attempts to permanently settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon, arguing that it was high time Lebanese authorities took initiatives to protect the country’s sovereignty.
“There are serious intentions, talk and lobbying going on to impose the establishment of camps inside Lebanon,” he told reporters at Ashrafieh’s Bustros Palace, the Foreign Ministry headquarters.
“A senior international official and a senior Lebanese official [recently] brought up the issue,” he added without divulging names. “We will oppose those attempts no matter the pressure imposed on us.”
In exclusive comments to The Daily Star following the news conference, Bassil said he was in contact with Syrian authorities on an array of issues, the refugee crisis being chief among them.
“I am in contact with Syrian authorities just like all the other Lebanese ministries, various Lebanese security apparatuses and even the international community is in contact with Syria,” he said.
“We do so to preserve Lebanon’s higher interests.”
He added that he spoke to his Syrian counterpart Walid Moallem but categorically dismissed discussing Lebanon’s stalled presidential election with Syrian officials.
On his father-in-law, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun’s initiative to end the presidential void and the backlash it has provoked, Bassil downplayed negative reactions saying none had touched on the essence of the proposal.
“Most reactions were rather marginal,” he said.
Earlier this week, Aoun proposed that the Constitution be amended to allow the Lebanese people to vote for their head of state. Aoun suggested that Christians vote in a first round, with the top two candidates then facing a public poll open to voters of all sects.
As for the silence of FPM’s allies, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, over Aoun’s initiative, Bassil argued that it should not be interpreted as non-compliance. “Quite the contrary,” he said, refusing to elaborate.
On reports that Aoun was informed that the Future Movement and Saudi Arabia opposed his presidential bid, Bassil brushed them off as “unfounded and nonsensical.”
At the news conference, Bassil argued that setting up camps or legitimizing existing informal ones was a veiled attempt to settle refugees and was a blatant violation of the country’s Constitution.
“Our Constitution is very clear and it stipulates: no partition, no division and no naturalization,” he said. “We are entrusted with preserving this unity and the country’s stability and to protect the Lebanese.”
Bassil said Lebanon must start imposing its own conditions and regulations regarding the entry of Syrians fleeing violence in their country.
The foreign minister spoke to local and international media one day after the U.N. said that Syrian refugees in Lebanon would constitute more than a third of the country’s population by the end of 2014.
He said that from now the conditions to register refugees should be the responsibility of the state rather than the U.N., in line with a series of decisions approved by a Lebanese ministerial committee to curb the mass influx of Syrian refugees.
“No group is genuinely interested in solving the refugee crisis: not Syria, not the international community,” he said. “It is high time the Lebanese took matters into their own hands.”
While Bassil acknowledged and saluted the “huge” efforts exerted by UNHCR, he said the new terms of registration should not give rise to “friction or clash” with the UNHCR.
“I am convinced that if the Lebanese state requests that UNHCR abide by the new conditions, the agency would approve,” he said. “All we need to do is ask.”
In addition, one of the solutions to the refugee crisis is to establish camps in no-man’s land along the border between Lebanon and Syria, according to Bassil.
Although the proposal is largely frowned upon by aid groups and the Syrian government, Bassil said it was a purely Lebanese decision, since the gatherings will be set up on Lebanese territories inside Syria.
“The decision to establish camps in Syria is a purely Syrian matter but the decision to establish camps in buffer zones is a strictly Lebanese decision and international parties and Syria are required to ensure the conditions for [the plan’s] success,” he said.
Responding to concerns that the establishment of such camps posed huge security risks, Bassil said those camps would only be established if necessary security and protection for its residents were fulfilled. “Those camps will meet security, human rights and ethical conditions.”
Bassil explained that the Syrian envoy to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali has not personally informed him that his country opposed the Lebanese government’s proposal to establish camps.
“Even [ U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] Antonio Gueterres informed us that while his body does not favor or encourage such plans it will not oppose Lebanon’s decisions,” he said
At the briefing, Bassil slammed the international community for failing to address the refugee crisis “it has caused and it continues to fuel,” adding that additional funds would certainly alleviate the burden but not necessarily address the root of the problem.
He also revealed that he would start a fresh round of talks with world powers in the next ten days to mull over potential solutions for the protracted refugee crisis.
Bassil disclosed that donors see shrinking numbers of refugees in Lebanon gradually as a pre-requisite to comply with Lebanon’s demands.
“The solution does not lie in giving refugees more money,” he said. “All this aid – be it food, shelter or health care – encourages Syrian refugees to stay in Lebanon, while what we want is to encourage their speedy exit.”