Lebanon mulls solutions for return of Syrian refugees

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Lebanese officials discuss practical solutions to the Syrian refugee crisis during the 'Displaced Syrians, the Road Back' conference in Beirut. [Nohad Topalian/Al-Mashareq]

Lebanese officials discuss practical solutions to the Syrian refugee crisis during the 'Displaced Syrians, the Road Back' conference in Beirut. [Nohad Topalian/Al-Mashareq]

Participants at a recent conference in Beirut discussed the repercussions of the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon and called on the government to develop a clear national plan to handle the crisis and facilitate their eventual return.

High-ranking Lebanese and international officials, including representatives from the UN, attended the "Displaced Syrians, the Road Back" conference, held September 8th and 9th and organised by the Maronite League in Beirut.

The conference was convened in light of the fact that Lebanon is hosting 1.1 million refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and approximately 500,000 others who are not registered.

Right to return

Any plan to handle the crisis must include provisions for the eventual safe return of refugees to their country of origin, the officials said, calling on Lebanon to communicate with the UN and influential countries to identify safe zones.

Syrian refugee students in Lebanon must be exposed to Syrian school curricula to facilitate their re-integration into schools in Syria upon their return, they said.

Additionally, they said, every child born to a Syrian father in Lebanon must be registered, and that register must be officially presented to the Syrian authorities via the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs

Including Lebanon's non-refugee Syrian population of about 800,000, Syrians now account for about one third of Lebanon's population, Maronite League president Antoine Klimos told Al-Mashareq.

There are around 50,000 Syrian births in Lebanon each year, he said.

"We are interested in seeing Syrians return to their country, because it is their right," he said, noting the economic, social and security repercussions of the refugee crisis on Lebanon.

"We have seen the consequences clearly," he said. "For example, there are three Syrian workers for every four Lebanese."

Eventual return is the goal

The only sustainable solution to the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is the return of refugees to their homeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Gebran Bassil told Al-Mashareq.

"There is no future for projects to resettle them or legislate a long-term stay for them on our land," he said. "The only solution is their return, and we as Lebanese, Syrians and international community must work on this basis."

A "clear national plan" must be adopted to this end, he said, so steps can be implemented that contribute to their return.

This plan might include a census of the Syrian population in Lebanon in co-operation with relevant international organisations, Bassil said.

"The most important thing we can do to arrange a safe return for them is to quickly commence the necessary measures and communicate with all stakeholders to find safe places that are currently available in Syria to ensure them a quick and gradual return," he said.

"All Syrian births in Lebanon must be reported to the Syrian authorities by means that the government deems appropriate to solidify the relationship between the refugee and his country," he said.

If these steps are adopted by all Lebanese parties, "we ensure the return of refugees to Syria and stability for Lebanon according to a clear road map", he said.

Towards securing safe zones

There is consensus among Lebanese that the best course of action is to facilitate the return of refugees to Syria, rather than their long-term resettlement in Lebanon, Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas told Al-Mashareq.

"Discussions are ongoing in earnest to secure safe areas" in Syria where these populations can be accommodated, away from combat zones, he said.

"This requires us to launch a major national, Arab and international campaign towards that end," he said, adding that both Lebanese and Syrians agree that Syria is the homeland of its people.

The creation of safe zones would make it possible for a large number of Syrian refugees to return to their homes, Derbas said, calling for the development of plans to ensure the "safe and dignified" return of Syrian refugees.

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