12/06/2022, 14.37
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Lebanon, Syrian refugees: UNHCR 'open' to relocation and voluntary repatriation

by Fady Noun

Filippo Grandi has concluded a visit to the country, making an "urgent appeal" to the international community. Refugees number almost two million, of which 'only' 830,000 are registered. First openings for an alternative solution to naturalisation of a 'complex and problematic' issue. The problem of security and an end to the war remains, with the threat of a Turkish military ground operation. 

Beirut (AsiaNews) - "We must not let go, we must stand by Lebanon". The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi has issued a warning in recent days at the end of a three-day visit in which he met with the leaders of the Land of Cedars.

He then made an 'urgent appeal' to the international community, urging it to support a nation that hosts 'one of the largest per capita refugee populations in the world'. Not without problems, because the stay of almost two million Syrian refugees (of whom only 830,000 are registered with the UN) is a "complex and problematic" issue. 

The position of the Italian diplomat, received by interim Prime Minister Nagib Mikati, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berry and Social Affairs Minister Hecto Hajjar, reflects a situation on the ground that he himself knows well. Beirut has on several occasions in the past reproached the UN and the European Union for wanting to settle refugees on its territory, clashing with a position that would not take into account its demographic balance. 

In this regard, signs of satisfaction come from the publication of the UNHCR communiqué, which reflects a change from the simplistic solution of naturalising refugees. The text states to 'continue working with key actors to find long-term solutions for Syrian refugees, including relocation to third nations and voluntary, safe and dignified return to Syria'.

The word 'including' shows that the EU and international organisations have not abandoned the initial naturalisation project. And that there is a race between two opposing plans: one pushing for refugees to stay behind behind massive aid. The other that aims at repatriation as quickly as possible, with the simultaneous end of the war in Syria.  

Asked about the 15,000 per month return plan, drawn up in the summer and then frozen, the Minister of Social Affairs tied it to the "officialisation" of relations with Damascus, which have been missing since Syria's exclusion from the Arab League in 2011. In this regard, a visit by Hajjar himself to Syria is under consideration, precisely to relaunch repatriations. 

Food Aid

As a sign of the UN's interest in Lebanon - and its long-term plans - the UN World Food Programme (WFP) promised five billion Euro in aid to Lebanon in November to ensure its food security. The announcement was made during a conference by the head of the outgoing government and Pam director in Lebanon Abdallah al-Wardat.

The new plan envisages almost EUR 5.4 billion spread over three years, which will benefit 'one million Syrian refugees and one million Lebanese' destitute between 2023 and 2025. 

As for repatriations, Lebanon assures that they are voluntary but hides cases of arbitrary arrests that have taken place in the past. Most of these are young men who did not answer the call to arms in Syria. 

Among those hesitating to return are also those from Idlib province and the northern Syrian regions where fighting continues, combined with the recent threat of a ground offensive from Turkey. We spoke about this with Ali (the name is fictitious, to protect his identity), a caretaker by profession, who says he 'does not have the means' to return home, because of the 'thousands of euros' in fines, to be paid 'to smugglers to get around the danger areas' and return home.

That said, the massive presence of Syrians in Lebanon has caused a phenomenon of rejection by the host community. And in the last period, following the murder of a teenager at the hands of two Syrian suspects in Aqtaint, south Lebanon, there has been a further tightening of restrictions against the refugees themselves, with arrests at the borders of those without valid documents, reinforced controls, stricter traffic rules, including night curfews.

This is an aspect rightly defined by Filippo Grandi as 'complex and difficult' to solve. 

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