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Lebanon News

Bassil draws racism charges over call to expel refugees

Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil arrives to attend a Cabinet session at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, Monday, July 30, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Energy Minister Gebran Bassil has called on the government to expel Syrian and Palestinian refugees who have flooded into Lebanon to flee the fighting in Syria, a stance that quickly drew fire from a Cabinet member and a Future bloc MP.

The growing refugee crisis in Lebanon threatens a split within the Cabinet as it grapples with the rising influx of displaced people from the neighboring country.

Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said the issue of Syrian refugees was imposed on Lebanon and there was no reason to seek “revenge or racism” against the Syrian or Palestinian people.

Future MP Oqab Saqr accused Bassil and his father-in-law, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, of making statements aimed at appeasing the Christians ahead of the 2013 parliamentary elections.

Bassil warned that the influx of Syrian and Palestinian refugees into Lebanon – which already had a large Syrian and Palestinian population even before the outbreak of the popular uprising in Syria – would compete with the Lebanese in their livelihood.

“When we say we do not want Syrian and Palestinian refugees to take our place, this matter should be implemented in deeds and not in words. With their presence, work and earning their living, they [refugees] are taking the place of the Lebanese,” Bassil said in a speech Saturday at a ceremony launching the Lebanese Wine Day to be organized in France on May 16, 2013. He was acting on behalf of Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan.

“How can the Syrian curriculum be taught in some schools in Lebanon? Where are our sovereignty and dignity in this matter?” Bassil said, adding: “Is there any country in the world that teaches the curriculum of another country on its territory? Isn’t it enough for us the Palestinians [who are already] in Lebanon, for the rest of [Palestinian] camps to come to Lebanon too?”Of the more than 160,000 Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. refugee agency, there are currently over 32,000 Syrian students enrolled in Lebanese schools, the government said. In addition to an increased load on the school systems, refugee populations are taking a heavy toll on host communities that are running out of resources.

“We call on the Lebanese government, in which we are represented – and we demand a special [Cabinet] session on this issue – to seriously discuss the expulsion of the refugees,” Bassil said. He added that Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Syrian territory under the control of Syrian rebels and the opposition can accommodate the refugees from Syria.

The Cabinet will hold a special session Thursday to grapple with the rising flow of refugees coming from strife-torn Syria into Lebanon. The Lebanese government has launched an international appeal for nearly $180 million to help it deal with the massive numbers of Syrians in the country.

Nearly 3,000 Syrian and Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon last week following the bombardment of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk near Damascus. Adding to the plight of refugees, 38 cases of tuberculosis have been discovered among Syrian refugees, raising fears of the spread of diseases.

In his speech, Bassil, who last week called for closing the border with Syria in order to halt the flow of refugees, said his stance was not “a racist one at all, but stemmed from a national thinking of which we are proud.”

“We did not say we want to close our border [with Syria]. But the border is to export through it goods to the outside [world] and to protect ourselves and our country, Lebanon, against anything bad,” he said.

“Therefore, we must distinguish between the refugee convoys when Lebanon is no longer able to accommodate [refugees] and a trade and industrial convoy. We have called for a halt to receiving people whom we are unable to accommodate. This is what Turkey, Jordan and Iraq have done when they stopped the flow of refugees,” Bassil added.

In what appeared to be a response to Bassil’s remarks, Abu Faour rejected what he called “racist” practices against the Syrian and Palestinian people.

“The subject of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has imposed itself on all the Lebanese. The matter is not a choice of any of the Lebanese or political parties. There is no reason to seek revenge or racism against the Syrian or Palestinian people who were forced to come to Lebanon,” Abu Faour told reporters after a tour in the district of Rashaya.

Abu Faour, who belongs to MP Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc, said Prime Minister Najib Mikati had received assurances from the United Nations, the European Union and more than one Arab state that Lebanon would get assistance to help it cope with the refugee issue.

Abu Faour met Saturday with German Economic Cooperation and Development Minister Drik Niebel, who told him Germany had decided to give $14.5 million to U.N. agencies to help the Lebanese state in dealing with refugees.

Speaking at a news conference Sunday, Niebel said Germany would donate $6.1 million to the U.N. Children’s Fund to meet emergency needs of thousands of Syrian children who fled with their families to Lebanon, the state-run National News Agency reported.

Saqr slammed Bassil for his call to expel the Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Lebanon: “For days, we have been hearing statements and speeches by some Lebanese politicians, on top of them Michel Aoun, who have been repeating an outdated individual language, part of the fading racist history, in order to insult and slander the Syrian refugees.”

He scoffed at Bassil’s criticism of teaching the Syrian curriculum in Lebanese schools, reminding the energy minister that he himself had graduated in Lebanon from an American university.

“The foreign – American and Iranian – curriculum, universities and schools are competing with their Lebanese counterparts. This is the case in various world states,” Saqr said. “What is dangerous in this logic is that [Aoun’s and Bassil’s] statements are intended to appease the Christians before the elections.”

Meanwhile, a senior Fatah official said that the flow of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon was temporary and was linked to an improvement in the security situation in Syria.

Speaking after meeting with Sidon MP Bahiya Hariri in Majdalyoun, east of the southern city, Fathi Abu Ardat, representative of Fatah and PLO factions in Lebanon, said an agreement reached in Damascus between Palestinian factions, the Syrian government and the opposition would allow a number of Palestinian families to return to the Yarmouk camp.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2012, on page 1.

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