Lebanon News

Lebanon president calls for return of Syrians to homeland

President Michel Aoun meets with UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi at the Baabda Palace, Friday, Feb. 3, 2017. (The Daily Star/Dalati&Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun Friday stressed that Syrian refugees cannot remain in Lebanon "indefinitely."

He urged the international community to facilitate the return of refugees in coordination with the Syrian authorities by establishing safe zones.

Aoun's remarks were made during a meeting with United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) chief Filippo Grandi.

However, the president added that "Lebanon will not oblige refugees to return [to their homeland] in unstable security conditions."

Lebanon is currently hosting 1.03 million Syrians registered with the UNHCR, though the Lebanese government estimated numbers might be closer to 1.5 million.

Aoun expressed appreciation for the efforts exerted by UNHCR to support Syrians in Lebanon. However, he warned of the negative repercussions of the presence of Syrians in Lebanon on the country's economy.

The recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, a key backer of Syrian rebels which now has thousands of troops in northern Syria, in theory makes the creation of safe zones more achievable.

Syria warned Monday of safe zones for civilians that U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed interest in creating, saying it would have to come in coordination with the Syrian government, otherwise it would be unsafe and violate the Arab nation’s sovereignty.

The announcement was made in Damascus by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a meeting with Grandi.

Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011, has displaced half the country’s population and sent more than 4 million Syrians as refugees, mostly to neighboring countries.

Grandi said that the agency was firm on its support for Lebanon, saying that the UNHCR, in cooperation with other U.N. agencies, was discussing with Syrian authorities the "gradual" return of refugees.

He added that the meeting tackled the challenges posed by the presence of refugees in Lebanon and means to locate additional sources for addition aid to Lebanon's state institutions.

"We hope to reach a political solution as a start to restore stability in Syria and [pave way for the] return of refugees," a statement issued by the president's office quoted Grandi as saying.

He expressed the agency's readiness to assist Syrians willing to return to their homeland.

Grandi later met with Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri also held talks with Grandi at the Grand Serail in the presence of the State minister for Refugees’ affairs Mouein Merehbi.

"We reviewed the situation of the Syrian refugees in the country which, in percentage terms, hosts the highest concentration of refugees in the world," the U.N. official said after the meeting, according to a statement issued by Hariri's press office.

Grandi said that he agreed with the Prime Minister that the upcoming conference in Brussels, called for by the European Union and attended by many others, "will be a very good opportunity to reiterate the importance of supporting host countries and, in particular, Lebanon."





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