Lebanon News

Too early for refugees to return to Syria: U.N.

Kaag and Lazzarini speak during a press conference in Yarzeh. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

YARZE, Lebanon: Top United Nations representatives in Lebanon Wednesday said it was still too early for large numbers of refugees to return to Syria, in light of recent developments in Lebanon and in the region. “It’s important to stick to international law. [The Syrian refugees’] return has to be dignified, voluntary and safe, and so far these conditions have not been met,” Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Philippe Lazzarini told journalists during a media briefing at the headquarters of the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon in Yarze.

Lazzarini and U.N. Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag discussed the latest developments in Lebanon and in the region and the U.N.’s position on issues including refugee returns, international aid, security threats to Lebanon and the new electoral law.

According to U.N. estimates, half a million internally displaced Syrians and 30,000 Syrian refugees have so far returned to their homes this year. However, Lazzarini pointed out that returns from Lebanon have been limited to minor local agreements and that this indicates that the situation in Syria remains unsafe overall.

Kaag seconded Lazzarini, saying the “conditions for return [to Syria] are not being met” and dismissed the idea of an imminent greater U.N. involvement in organizing safe transfers from Lebanon, which was called for Wednesday by several ministers in Baabda.

“Our concern is to have sustained support for hosting countries to make sure that, in the period in which refugees are still hosted by countries like yours [Lebanon], sufficient and adequate support is made available to host communit[ies] as well as refugees,” Kaag said.

Using the Arabic term for naturalization, Kaag said the refugees’ “tawteen” in Lebanon had never been an option and that displaced populations worldwide share a desire to move back to their home countries.

Picking up on this point, Lazzarini added that, on the other hand, facilitating the return of refugees when conditions are not yet ideal might result in the opposite effect.

“Experience shows that if the return [to the country of origin] takes place too quickly ... and the people move back again, the likelihood of this [second resettlement to a host country] becoming permanent becomes much, much higher,” he said. The international community renewed its pledges to Lebanon earlier this year and Lazzarini said he was “confident enough” that the $1.6 million pledged to Lebanon in 2016 and reconfirmed for 2017 would materialize.

However, he said that a delay in delivering the funds and the lack of predictability on the allocation of future funds complicated long-term assistance to Lebanon.

With regards to reports that the Lebanese Army’s raids on Syrian camps led to the death of four people in Arsal, both Lazzarini and Kaag invoked caution. “We are in dialogue but it’s too early for us to make a determination. One has to be very careful not to speak before having a full insight in the facts,” Kaag said. “It’s normal to be concerned but we need to know more about the circumstances,” she added.

Kaag remarked that it was “a miracle” that Lebanon had been left largely unscathed by the surge in terrorist attacks witnessed by Europe in recent years and attributed this to the efficiency of the Army.

“We read that there could be a displacement of [terrorist] individuals of groups following the demise of Daesh [ISIS]. I think one has to assume this is always a possibility. But in all these years of turmoil, Lebanon has done incredibly well,” Kaag told reporters.

The U.N. special coordinator warned, however, of the security threat posed by the “escalation of the rhetoric [between Lebanon and Israel] and the inadvertent risk this may trigger.” Kaag called for both parties to lower the tone and not to take words lightly.

With regard to the internal political situation, Lebanon was praised for overcoming its yearslong political deadlock and approving a new electoral law. However, Kaag referred to the absence of a female quota in the new electoral law as “a major setback” and called on all forward-thinking political parties to include women in their list of candidates.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 06, 2017, on page 3.

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