For Fr Paul Karam, the situation remains challenging. Only a few families have gone home, and their fate remains uncertain. Syrian authorities have encouraged repatriation, but the situation remains unstable. Lebanon faces its own problem: both unemployment and poverty are close to 40 per cent.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – A deal between the Lebanese government and Syrian emissaries has made it possible for several Syrian families to go home, “but we cannot say that the situation has changed radically nor that most have returned,” said Fr Paul Karam, president of Caritas Lebanon, speaking to AsiaNews.
The clergyman, who has been involved with war refugees for a long time, said that the situation is still challenging. Noting that the “Lebanese want to see lasting peace to facilitate repatriation,” he added that the “emergency cannot be solved quickly.”
Yesterday, hundreds of Syrian refugee families left Lebanon for their homeland in buses from the cities of Tripoli (northern Lebanon), Nabatieh (south), as well as Shebaa and Bourj Hammoud. Lebanese authorities "facilitated their return" by coordinating the operation with their Syrian counterpart.
Recently, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Syria is ready to welcome the return of a million refugees thanks to an improvement in the situation on the ground and the reconstruction work had started in collaboration with Moscow.
However, in light of the actual situation on the ground, such a claim is far too optimistic for many observers and Caritas.
One of the consequences of the still ongoing civil war that broke out seven years ago is the displacement of millions of desperate people around the Middle East as well as Europe, North America and Australia.
Lebanon is one of the countries carrying one of the heaviest burdens, namely a million Syrian refugees in a country of four million people, plus long-term Palestinian refugees.
The situation has reached a breaking point, with huge strains on the economy and public services as well as the civilian population.
The government and NGOs (including Christian groups) have spent a lot of money in the past few years to "protect, promote and integrate" refugees, which Pope Francis encourages in his message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
"No one has precise information about the fate of those who have returned, whether they returned to their homes and region,” said the clergyman. Although something is happening and some people are going back, the issue remains unresolved.
"In recent weeks, several families returned to Syria for the Muslim holidays before coming back to Lebanon at the end of the celebrations. The Syrian government encourages repatriation, but it is still a long process."
The offensive against Idlib is another major headache because it could turn into another humanitarian emergency with international repercussions that could trigger a US-led Western intervention.
“Despite early attempts at reconstruction, Syria is a nation that has been almost completely destroyed; for most people, life is one of instability and destabilisation. The international community is not blameless since it failed to manage the crisis.”
For Fr Paul, it will take "many years” for Syria to get back on its feet. Lebanon too will need time to overcome its current difficulties.
In Lebanon, "Over 38 per cent of the population is unemployed and a similar percentage lives below the poverty line. We are going back, paying dearly for other people's policies.".
In this context, the Lebanese Church "continues to help" even if "it is increasingly difficult to promote projects and find funding since money and energy are increasingly in short supply."