BEIRUT: The Cabinet voted Thursday to approve a comprehensive plan to deal with the massive numbers of refugees fleeing to Lebanon from strife-torn Syria during a marathon session marred by sharp rhetoric over how the government should approach this sensitive issue.
Five ministers from MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc and Minister of State Nicolas Fattoush voted against the government’s plan, which appeals to the international community for nearly $180 million to help cash-strapped Lebanon address the needs of thousands of refugees.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, backed by other ministers from Aoun’s bloc, proposed the closure of Lebanon’s border with Syria as a measure to stem the flow of refugees, but this proposal was rejected by most ministers, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour told reporters after the six-hour meeting chaired by President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace.
“This matter [closing the border] is inapplicable and no official can tell a family fleeing death [in Syria] that it’s forbidden to enter Lebanon,” said Faour, the acting information minister.
Faour, who belongs to Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc, said there were different opinions, “bordering on contradictions,” over how to address the rising influx of displaced people from Syria.
“The state will continue searching for funds to implement the plan. President Sleiman has begun contacts to reduce some of Lebanon’s burdens in this issue,” he added
Abu Faour said the Cabinet discussed how to face the challenges resulting from the continued flow of refugees from Syria into Lebanon.
After lengthy discussions, the Cabinet agreed on a host of measures to deal with the refugee issue, he said.
Among the measures included in the government’s plan are urging donor countries to implement their pledges to extend aid to Lebanon and calling on the Arab League and international organizations to hold emergency meetings to highlight the situation of the refugees, Abu Faour said.
He added that the Lebanese state would register the actual refugees in order to ensure that they receive aid.
Over 170,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Lebanon since the conflict erupted in Syria in March 2011, in addition to nearly 15,000 Palestinians who have fled to Lebanon following last month’s fierce clashes in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus between government forces and rebel groups.
The Cabinet also agreed to launch an Arab-international campaign to urge donor states to share with Lebanon the financial burdens of accommodating the refugees as well as their number, Abu Faour said.
He added that Interior Minister Marwan Charbel was tasked with establishing a security cell with the Lebanese Army, the Internal Security Forces, General Security and State Security to hammer out a security plan to follow up the conditions of refugees.
Addressing the Cabinet session, Sleiman said the refugee issue should be addressed in an objective manner by all official departments in order to ensure that Lebanon was carrying out its humanitarian duties, while preserving its sovereignty, stability and security. Prime Minister Najib Mikati underlined the necessity of dealing with the refugee crisis with the logic of the state that exercises its role in a way that preserves Lebanon’s security and stability, Abu Faour said.
Earlier Thursday, Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud, who belongs to Aoun’s bloc, said it supported the building of camps like those in Turkey and Jordan to accommodate the refugees in Lebanon.
“Our position stems from our concern for humanity and from the inability of Lebanon to secure the humanitarian demands and needs of the refugees in a proper way,” Abboud told the Central News Agency.
However, Minister of State Ahmad Karami, speaking to reporters before entering the Cabinet session, said there would be no camps for the refugees and the Lebanese border with Syria would not be closed.
Ahead of the Cabinet session, Mikati discussed the issue of Syrian refugees during a meeting with German Ambassador to Lebanon Birgitta Siefker-Eberle, who declared afterward that Germany would donate an additional $19 million in response to the government’s $179 million aid appeal.
The meeting at the Grand Serail was also attended by representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF.
Referring to the government’s aid appeal to the international community, Siefker-Eberle said in a statement after the meeting: “As a reaction to the Response Plan of the Lebanese government, Germany has pledged to cover a share of more than 10 percent of the sum identified by the Response Plan, in numbers 14.73 million euros, which equals $19.2 million.”
She said the new pledge of $19. 2 million comes on top of $15 million that Berlin has already donated for the support of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
The parliamentary Future bloc of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri urged the government to organize an international donor conference to help it cope with the influx of Syrian and Palestinian refugees into Lebanon.
In a statement issued after its weekly meeting, the bloc blamed the government for “aggravating the problem of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon because it had evaded since the beginning of the crisis in Syria from drawing up a clear-cut policy on the Syrian refugees in order to meet the demands of the Syrian regime, which has denied the presence of a refugee problem in the first place.”
“The more realistic solution [to the refugee problem] is for the government to organize a regional-international conference of donor states and organizations to support the Lebanese government’s plan aimed at aiding the Syrian refugees and helping them overcome their suffering,” the statement said.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai slammed Lebanon’s rival factions, urging them to take part in National Dialogue to address the issue of Syrian refugees.
“Shame on you for not attending Dialogue,” said Rai. “It is shameful for officials to not attend Dialogue and address the Syrian refugee case, the biggest national and humanitarian issue we are facing today.”