BEIRUT: The Cabinet Thursday restricted Syrian refugees from entering Lebanon, save exigent cases, in the first serious attempt to address a mounting crisis that has put immense pressure on Lebanon’s feeble infrastructure. “No more refugees will be allowed to cross the border except for extreme humanitarian cases,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said after a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail.
Syrians entering Lebanon would be required to explain their reasons for entry at the border, in order to ensure that the measure was being properly implemented.
From now on, the UNHCR will also require approval from the Social Affairs Ministry before registering any Syrian national as a refugee, Joreige said.
He added the government would “encourage Syrian refugees to return home or to go to another country by all possible means.”
A nation of 4 million before the Syria crisis, Lebanon has now 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees. Unofficial figures are estimated to be much higher.
Scattered across Lebanon in informal camps, the refugees are exerting substantial pressure on the country’s resources, and the international community is failing to honor its pledge for financial assistance.
According to the new policy, refugee status would be revoked from any Syrian who set foot on Syrian territory or violated Lebanese laws and conditions for entering Lebanon.
Security forces will carry on implementing security measures related to refugees and municipalities too will be required to regularly count refugees and command municipal police to maintain order.
Separately, at the outset of the session, Prime Minister Tammam Salam said that the government was contiuing negotiations to secure the release of 27 servicemen held captive by militants from ISIS and the Nusra Front in the outskirts of Arsal.
Ministerial sources told The Daily Star that a crisis cell formed by the government to follow up on the issue had received the demands of the captors in a written form. The sources refused to disclose what they entailed.
Head of the Higher Relief Committee Maj. Gen. Mohammad Kheir visited the families of the kidnapped servicemen Thursday at their protest site at Riad al-Solh Square near the Grand Serail.
After the meeting, the families told reporters that they had received positive news from Kheir. They said it was the first time they had felt assured about the fate of their loved ones since they were abducted nearly three months ago.
The government also extended the contracts with Lebanon’s two mobile-operating companies touch and Alfa for seven months.
The Cabinet session was the first to be held after a war of words erupted over the weekend between Hezbollah and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who accused the party of foiling the nationwide security plan.
Ministerial sources said that a “calm discussion” had taken place between Machnouk and Hezbollah ministers Hussein Hajj Hasan and Mohammad Fneish during the Cabinet session.
Hajj Hasan and Fneish stressed that Hezbollah strongly backed the security plan and that it did not protect violators in areas where it enjoys support.
The discussion ended in a “positive manner,” the sources said, adding that an agreement had been reached among Cabinet members to refrain from exchanging accusations via media outlets.
The security plan was launched in April, shortly after the formation of the government, in a bid to restore law and order in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley.