BEIRUT: A top official at the International Committee for the Red Cross said his organization would be willing to help set up a prisoner exchange for Lebanese servicemen captured during clashes in the northeastern town of Arsal.
Peter Maurer, the president of the ICRC, also said new restrictions on the entry of Syrians into Lebanon were a matter of Lebanese sovereignty, but his organization was working with authorities to ensure that humanitarian cases were unaffected.
Speaking at a news conference after a regional tour of Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, where he met top officials, Maurer also said that civilians and local communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the burden of the massive refugee crisis, saying the international community had only “limited openings” to resettle those displaced by war in the region.
This was “in the [Middle East] in particular, with not seen before numbers of displacement, impact of the displacement on the infrastructure of neighboring countries, on health systems, food, water, sanitation systems and more,” he said.
During his visit to Lebanon, the ICRC chief met with Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Speaker Nabih Berri, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas.
Maurer said 2014 had brought an almost unprecedented number and intensity of conflicts. Lebanon, in particular, has borne the major brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, with over a million Syrian refugees in a country of 4 million.
Maurer said the ICRC had increased its Lebanon program budget from about $4 million to a little over $43 million, in the steepest increase in its projects around the world last year.
But he said the organization must come up with long-term solutions, because the crises facing the region will not disappear in the near future.
He said many countries in the region are confronted with the challenge of balancing their own security with the need to protect civilians.
“The control of entry and exit of a border is basically an issue in the sovereignty of countries and is not an issue of international humanitarian law,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s controversial new visa restrictions for Syrians.
“As a humanitarian actor we cannot question on the basis of the Geneva Conventions the fundamental right to basically manage entry of foreign populations into the territory.”
“Our core concerns are not so much the respective restrictions,” he said, adding that the ICRC was not focused on the legality of the decisions taken to restrict entry.
“Our core concern is the humanitarian impact that those restrictions have on people, and what we are eager to, in each and every case ... is to find practical solutions for those who suffer from the impact of those restrictions and may be endangered because of those restrictions,” he added.
When asked whether the ICRC endorsed broader efforts to resettle refugees in the West and the Gulf Arab states, Maurer said the issue was a political one between nations but reiterated that local communities had disproportionately borne the effects of the refugee crisis.
“When you come to this region you are humbled by what the local populations did for those people displaced,” he said.
“And you feel this enormous discrepancy between the enormous amount of burden which has been absorbed in the region because of those displacements, and the relatively little openings that are given by countries beyond the region to resettle populations which are in need of resettlement.”
When asked whether he had discussed the issue of captive servicemen with officials in Beirut, Maurer said the ICRC was willing to assist in organizing a prisoner exchange.
“ICRC is known for being available if respective parties to conflicts agree to be helpful in exchanges of prisoners, hostages, whatever you call it,” he said. “I think the governments in the region know, and I have reconfirmed our willingness to help if this is in the interest of the parties concerned.”
ISIS and the Nusra Front are still holding 25 Lebanese soldiers and policemen captive following a battle in the troubled northeastern town of Arsal, and had previously killed several.
Both groups are demanding a prisoner exchange to free the men.
Maurer outlined his organization’s priorities in the region in the coming year.
“There is no question that ICRC will continue to focus on the key areas of its competence: on water, sanitation, medical, and livelihoods; on responding to impact of violence; on ensuring international humanitarian law in the conduct of hostilities; and on detention, by engaging with all armed actors,” he said.
But he said the ICRC has not been able to access key vulnerable communities in the region.
“We do not have access to important parts of Iraq and Syria, and we do not have the necessary cooperation in order to deliver on our humanitarian commitments in many parts of the region,” he said.
“Lebanon is a kind of exception where we are able to operate in a much more satisfactory way.”
He said the organization faced a huge challenge in gaining access to cities under the control of ISIS, such as Raqqa, Mosul and Fallujah.