Lebanon must formulate a national unified policy to address the Syrian refugee crisis and help provide safe conditions for their return, participants at a colloquium held last week in Kaslik, north of Beirut, said.
The December 12th "Lebanon and Syrian Displacement Crisis Management and Return: Towards a Public National Policy" conference capped a series of meetings held over a period of one year between leading Lebanese political, religious, academic and media leaders to discuss ways to address the refugee crisis.
These meetings were held as part of an initiative by the Holy Spirit University in Kaslik (USEK), with backing from the Swiss embassy.
The conference's concluding statement was delivered by Nassif Hitti, former Arab League ambassador to France and director of USEK’s Higher Institute of Political and Administrative Sciences.
It affirmed Lebanon's respect for human dignity, the protection of the rights of all citizens and residents on its territory, and the "unequivocal and total rejection of the resettlement of [Syrian] refugees".
The statement stressed that a political solution to the Syrian war must be achieved in order to resolve the refugee crisis.
The political solution would "guarantee the full, voluntary, dignified and safe return of refugees", the statement said, adding that the Syrian government must remove barriers preventing refugees from returning.
National white paper
The conference's concluding statement is "the result of a long process that began in August 2017 and consisted of separate meetings with politicians, heads of the main [political] parties represented in parliament, religious authorities, academics and media figures", said international law expert and legal adviser to the initiative Antoine Sfeir.
"The refugee issue was discussed in depth because it is critical to the future of Lebanon, which cannot bear this burden amid the ministerial and economic crises it is experiencing," he told Al-Mashareq.
The string of meetings that preceded the conference "aimed to produce a national [white] paper on the Syrian refugee crisis", he said, as the risk it poses threatens not only Lebanon but the whole Arab region and global security.
The initiative was launched to help the Lebanese state develop a working paper approved by politicians and religious authorities and that will serve as a "starting point for the return of Syrian refugees to their home country", Sfeir added.
The conclusions that emerged from the conference represent the building blocks for a national public policy that will be the focus of a national debate among the political and institutional authorities concerned with the refugee issue, said Ziad al-Sayegh, an expert on public policy and refugees.
The initiative "aims to serve the interests of the refugees, balance the human rights of both Lebanese and Syrians, [address the] refugees’ return and preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty", he said.
A diplomatic push
Lebanon today "is in urgent need of agreement on a unified national public policy that strikes a balance between respect for its sovereignty and respect for human rights", Minister of State for Displaced Affairs Mouin al-Merehbi told Al-Mashareq.
"We, as a country, must formulate a practical national plan that contributes to a sustainable return [for refugees], taking into account the conclusions of the meetings of the USEK initiative," he added.
He stressed the need for a diplomatic push to protect the legal and moral rights of refugees, by urging the international community to apply pressure to end the war in Syria and provide a reasonable level of legal, security, economic and social guarantees for their return.
A new national policy must take into account Lebanon's sovereignty and call for Hizbullah's withdrawal from Syria and the evacuation of the militias' members from the homes of displaced Syrians, al-Merehbi said.
This will facilitate the refugees' return to their homes, he added.