Lebanon plans Syrian refugee repatriation within months: Minister

Lebanon hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrians refugees who have fled a brutal, decade-old conflict in their home country.

Lebanon plans to begin repatriating tens of thousands of Syrian refugees within months over objections by the United Nations and human rights groups, a minister has said.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest numbers of refugees per capita and currently hosts approximately 1.5 million Syrians who fled the decade-old conflict.

Officials have said the influx has cost Lebanon billions of dollars and further damaged its crippled infrastructure while it struggles with a financial meltdown.

“We are serious about implementing this plan and we hope to do so within months,” Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced, said on Wednesday.

“This is a humane, honourable, patriotic and economic plan that is necessary for Lebanon,” he told The Associated Press.

The Lebanese government’s plan would entail sending back 15,000 Syrian refugees every month, he said.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and human rights groups have opposed involuntary repatriation to Syria and said the practice risks endangering the returning refugees.

Charafeddine said he presented the plan to President Michel Aoun on Monday. A committee consisting of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Charafeddine, six other ministers and the country’s General Security organisation have been working since March on the proposal to gradually return the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Charafeddine said he plans to visit Syria next week to meet Local Administration and Environment Minister Hussein Makhlouf, and hopes that Syria will agree on a concrete timeline for the planned repatriation.

The minister said Makhlouf had told him that the Syrian government could provide temporary shelter for repatriated refugees in areas that are “entirely safe”.

“We have statistics from the Interior Ministry of the names of the displaced, where they live, and where they’re originally from, and so we would return them by neighbourhood,” Charafeddine said.

Human rights violations

Human rights organisations in recent reports have documented cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and a host of human rights violations against returning refugees in Syria.

Charafeddine rejected such reports as a “fear campaign” and said the Syrian government had agreed to drop charges against former opposition fighters and political opposition.

“I was surprised that the Syrian state has eased matters a lot for returns even when it comes to security matters – even those who held weapons will get waivers,” he said.

He also criticised the UNHCR and donor countries for what he said was their unwillingness to redirect refugee aid to Syria, which he said deters refugees from returning home.

“Whatever the UNHCR’s position is, we will go ahead with the plan,” he said.

The UN refugee agency said in a statement that it had not engaged in negotiations with Beirut and Damascus on refugee returns.

“UNHCR continues to call on the government of Lebanon to respect the fundamental right of all refugees to a voluntary, safe and dignified return,” the statement read.

The United Nations estimates that 90 percent of Syrian refugee households live in extreme poverty.

Since late 2019, poverty has worsened for both Lebanese and Syrians in Lebanon as the country continues to struggle with a crippling economic crisis.

Sky-rocketing fuel prices coupled with a currency collapse in Lebanon has meant many essential commodities are now out of reach. In recent months, a surge of Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians have tried to flee the cash-strapped country by sea to Europe.

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