BEIRUT: Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil Thursday launched the party’s central committee for the return of refugees, saying they posed a threat to Lebanon’s identity and economy.
“Our basic case is the preservation of [Lebanese] identity,” Bassil said. “We don’t want what happened with the Palestinians to happen with the Syrians.”
Just fewer than 1 million Syrian refugees are currently registered in Lebanon with the U.N.’s refugee agency, though officials have estimated the number of Syrian refugees in the country is closer to 1.5 million.
The UNHCR has not registered any new Syrian refugees since 2015 as per the Lebanese government’s instructions. There are no official camps in Lebanon for Syrian refugees, in contrast to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, many of whom live in 12 official camps.
Bassil claimed the FPM was in a good position to encourage the return of refugees to Syria because the party did not have foreign allegiances and had no issues with the Syrian regime. He insisted the party was not taking the place of the Lebanese state in organizing those returns, which have been handled by General Security. However, Bassil said where the state failed to act other parties would fill the gap.
Bassil said the committee would establish contacts with refugee gatherings to help organize and encourage returns, and the committee would liaise with local authorities and General Security.
Bassil has led the FPM’s charge for returns to Syria, arguing conditions had become safe in areas of the country and Lebanon could not afford to wait for a political solution to the 7-year civil war.
But nearly a million Syrians have been displaced within Syria just this year due to fighting as the regime seeks to consolidate its control over rebel-held areas.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 13, 2018, on page 3.