Upcoming political deadlines stop repatriation plan for Syrian refugees
by Fady Noun

The UNHCR and the EU have criticised Lebanon’s repatriation plan, calling it a “soft” form of deportation since it would see 15,000 Syrian refugees go home per month. Lebanon wants to see it implemented “as soon as possible,” but for some analysts,  it is no longer a priority compared to electing a new president and forming a new government to pursue future policies.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon has postponed a plan to repatriate 15,000 displaced Syrians per month.

Considered vital by Lebanese authorities, the plan has been criticised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the European Union, and international human rights organisations as a “soft” form of deportation.

In a statement on Tuesday, Lebanon’s outgoing Minister of Displaced People Issam Sharafeddine said that "the Lebanese state has decided not to adopt the initial plan proposed by the ministry," but this plan "will be activated as soon as possible."

Either way, political observers believe that the plan is no longer a priority, pending the resolution of the problem of political transition in Lebanon, with the election of the country’s president and the formation of a new government, two deadlines that promise to be challenging.

Officially, the issue emerged at the sixth conference on Syrian refugees held on 9 May 2022 in Brussels. On that occasion, the Lebanese delegation clearly heard advice from donor countries about integrating Syrian refugees into Lebanese society.

Initially shocked, the Lebanese delegation quickly realised that the international community, in particular donor countries, did not intend to give the green light to the repatriation of displaced Syrians, and this for many reasons.

First, because they bet on the overthrow of the Syrian regime and lost, and so do not wish to cement this failure by helping President Bashar al-Assad.

Secondly, according to some unconfirmed rumours in certain political circles, since most displaced Syrians in Lebanon are Sunnis, their presence would counterbalance Hezbollah and the growing Shia community, as long as the future of Lebanon and the region remained unclear.

Finally, the war in Syria that began in 2011 is still not over, and even if the regime and its allies have scored points, they have not yet won the victory that would push the international community to give in on the issue of displaced people.

Minister Sharafeddine, who visited Damascus last August, said he had received guarantees and assurances from Damascus that Syrian nationals will be able to return to their country without fear of reprisals from the regime. In fact, a “convoy of 483 families will leave at the end of this week", from Arsal, a town in eastern Lebanon.

However, even this seems to be in jeopardy, since, as indicated by Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security, the government agency responsible for repatriation, Lebanese authorities are still waiting for the green light from Damascus.

For Minister Sharafeddine, the repatriation plan was supposed to be implemented with the agreement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Syrian authorities. However, neither the UNHCR nor Syrian authorities, each for their own reasons, is taking this repatriation for granted.

Syria clearly wishes to use this issue to normalise its relations with Lebanon. Although Lebanon has not officially severed ties with Syria after the outbreak of the war in 2011, no top Lebanese official has officially visited Syria since then, and those who go do so “in their personal capacity”.

With the UNHCR, the issue is of a different nature. In particular, Lebanon is calling for the suspension of monthly aid payments to Syrian refugees to encourage them to return home.

This aid is a source of tensions with the Lebanese population, who believe that Syrian refugees in Lebanon enjoy a higher standard of living than they do. They also view their presence as part of a plan by the international community to grant Syrian refugees Lebanese citizenship.

In reality, Lebanon has made it clear to the European Union and the United Nations that it considers itself “a country of transit”, categorically rejecting any European plan to integrate hundreds of thousands of Syrians on its territory.