BEIRUT: The Lebanese government is eager to coordinate with Syrian authorities to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said Monday.
“If the Syrian government has any inclination to accept the return of those willing to do so, then we shall play the part of helper and facilitator,” Derbas said.
To date, Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government has not engaged with their Syrian counterparts on political issues.
Derbas’ comments came toward the end of a news conference marking the second midterm review of the Lebanese Crisis Response Plan (LCPR), a government-led initiative to manage the effects of the Syrian civil war on Lebanon.
Jumping on Monday’s news that authorities from the U.S. and Turkey have agreed in principle to the creation of a “safe zone” in the Aleppo governorate, Derbas alluded to the possibility of resettling some refugees to this as-yet hypothetical area.
“We know that 43 percent of the Syrian refugees [in Lebanon] come from that area,” Derbas said. Previously Derbas and other members of government have criticized so-called “economic refugees” who, despite living closer to Iraq, Jordan or Turkey, flee to Lebanon to earn money working.
“We have to think from this point onward about how to adopt with this new reality so that we may lighten the load on Lebanon, and so that we may provide our Syrian brethren with the aid that shall allow them to re-establish themselves in their land,” Derbas said.
Hala al-Helou, an adviser to Derbas, said that the Lebanese authorities “will not forcibly return anyone” to Syria.
But Helou said that the Lebanese government had determined that the country can no longer care for more than 1.2 million refugees residing within its borders. “We’re saying that we need the numbers [of refugees] to decrease, and this means that everyone needs to share the burden,” she told The Daily Star. “All we can say is that we cannot handle these numbers.”
Helou said that in 2016 “a new mechanism” would be put in place to manage the refugee crisis. “It’s going to be a different approach,” she said, adding that the government would take a more proactive role in organizing a response to the ongoing crisis. Helou did not elaborate on what steps the government would take to reduce the number of refugees in Lebanon.
The LCPR, launched last December, has sought to draw support for both Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese communities who have been negatively affected by the regional instability.
While the LCRP calls for $2.14 billion to fund programs that help poor Lebanese, struggling municipalities and Syrian refugees, just $600 million has been raised so far, Derbas said.
“The scale of needs and limited resources mean that there are indeed critical [funding] gaps,” said Ross Mountain, the U.N.’s outgoing resident humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon. “While the international community has been generous, I’d like to use this occasion to again express our appeal for additional support,” Mountain said.
“Lebanon can’t be expected to shoulder this on its own.”
While Mountain praised the ongoing cooperation between government officials and humanitarian agencies who are working on the LCRP, he acknowledged that “despite the efforts that have been made, the battle is certainly not won.”
In spite of the turmoil in the Lebanese political arena, Derbas insisted that the LCRP would continue to “march forward regardless of what is going on around us in relation to the political realities. Tangible, material realities do not wait for political bickering.”
“We are in the face of a crisis that must be resolved,” Derbas said.