Lebanon News

Refugee influx pushing Lebanon to breaking point, Sleiman says

President Michel Sleiman, right, receives Finnish President Sauli Niinistڑ at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, Thursday, March 13, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman said Thursday that Lebanon could not host any more Syrian refugees, calling instead for the displaced to be returned to safe areas inside the war-ridden country.

“It [Lebanon] cannot endure the arrival of even a few thousand additional refugees. It cannot bear more refugees on its territories. This issue is out of the question,” Sleiman said during a joint news conference at Baabda Palace with his visiting Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto.

“Lebanon cannot endure the influx of additional refugees, as it has the problem of Palestinian refugees that are present in large numbers,” the president added.

Sleiman called for suitable measures to be adopted that would allow Syrian refugees to return to safe areas in their country.

He said Lebanon was already struggling to find enough financial resources to meet the demands of more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the country in terms of health care, education and food.

“We call on the international community ... to help Lebanon in this regard,” Sleiman said. “But financial aid is not enough, which therefore requires us to work with international organizations and relevant authorities to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees back to safe areas in Syria.”

The president also expressed his hope that a political solution that would allow most Syrian refugees to return home would be found.

He said the 3-year-old civil war in neighboring Syria had had grave socio-economic repercussions for Lebanon, and had led to a deterioration in the country’s security.

Lebanon is believed to host around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, just under a million of whom are registered or awaiting registration with the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Prior to the Syrian crisis, Lebanon had a population of around 4 million.

Last year, the World Bank said in a report that Syria’s conflict would cost Lebanon $7.5 billion in cumulative economic losses by the end of 2014.

Sleiman also spoke about Israel, which he said was continuously violating U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. However, he ruled out the possibility of an escalation, saying, “I believe that this is unlikely to happen to a certain extent because Lebanon is no longer an easy morsel in the mouth of Israel.”

Niinisto, who spent Wednesday night at the headquarters of the Finnish UNIFIL contingent in the south, expressed his satisfaction with the visit.

“The history of this cooperation with Lebanon is very old and a large number of our soldiers have participated in this force,” he said. “We were impressed very much with the way Lebanese authorities and the Lebanese Army are taking care of our soldiers.”

Niinisto said the cooperation between Lebanon and Finland was promising: “I am confident that we can have a wider partnership on the commerce level. For example, the Lebanese oil and gas resources can attract Finnish companies.”

He also agreed with Sleiman that the challenges Lebanon was facing due to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon were enormous.

Sleiman thanked the Finnish president for his country’s participation in UNIFIL and for the humanitarian and social aid provided by the Finnish peacekeepers to locals in the south, while Niinisto voiced his country’s readiness to participate in meetings held by the International Support Group for Lebanon.

Prior to the news conference, Sleiman and Niinisto discussed bilateral ties in a closed-door meeting. They were then joined by Lebanese and Finnish officials. Later in the day, Sleiman, Niinisto, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Tammam Salam held a meeting at Baabda Palace.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2014, on page 3.

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