Lebanese Labor Minister unveils plan to repatriate Syrian refugees to ‘safe zones’

Published September 20th, 2016 - 11:00 GMT
Lebanese Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi. (AFP/File)
Lebanese Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi. (AFP/File)

Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi revealed Monday a new plan that, if adopted, would see Syrian refugees in Lebanon repatriated next year.

The plan, which consists of three phases and would commence in January 2017, heavily relies on the ability of international powers – namely Russia and the United States – to secure sustainable cease-fires and safe zones that Syrians can return to. “There are safe zones,” Azzi insisted, “just no political decision or will to maintain the cease-fire.”

Individuals who were not forcibly displaced will be identified for the first phase of return. Monetary incentives would also be used to lure Syrians back – payable upon arrival in Syria. In its first year, the plan will focus on clearing out refugees residing in border areas to mitigate terrorist infiltration into Lebanon. Syrians would have the option to head to a safe zone or another area of their choice.

The plan also proposes that nongovernmental organizations move to Syria to facilitate the transition, while funds supplied by donor countries – which must be committed before the end of this year – would sustain the two-year plan. All relocation efforts would be overseen by a committee consisting of government and UN representatives, with the possible inclusion of other parties. With this plan, Azzi aims to transfer 1,235,000 Syrians back into Syria.

The plan omits Syrians who legally work in Lebanon and have residency and work permits. A Human Rights Watch report published in 2016, however, cites humanitarian agencies saying that strict residency rules applied to Syrians have prevented two-thirds of them from obtaining legal residency.

“The time when Lebanon would accommodate the plans of the international community is over ... small nations must not bear the consequences for large nations’ wars,” Azzi said, adding that the Lebanese have been driven to a place at which they are now in search of their own land and stability, much like the Syrians and the Palestinians. He compared the toll of the Syrian presence to the burden Lebanon carried with the influx of Palestinians in the 1970s.

Azzi’s comments came just as a Lebanese delegation in New York participated in the UN General Assembly’s Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The summit states on its website that it aims for a “more humane and coordinated approach” in responding to “large movements of refugees and migrants.” By his own admission, Azzi revealed the delegation was not briefed on his plan.

“I am surprised the Lebanese delegation went to New York without meeting with the Committee for Refugee Affairs. They go to New York just to mark an attendance and participate in meetings. I am sorry the Cabinet did not meet on this matter before they left,” Azzi said.

He expressed confidence, however, that Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who is heading Lebanon’s UN delegation, will support his views at the summit.

“I’m not claiming that the plan will be implemented tomorrow. We are saying Syrians must leave, but nobody else has offered a plan,” Azzi said regarding the feasibility of his proposal. “The plan must be exhibited to all factions and nations,” he added.

Azzi also revealed that large nations were not inclined toward the plan. “I met with some ambassadors from large nations; they are not cooperating with the plan,” Azzi said. He explained this was because the international community insists it will not place any Syrians back in Syria until “the last bullet is fired in Syria. This might take 5,000 years.”

Allen Holst, public affairs officer at the US Embassy in Lebanon, said his country supports the return of Syrians to Syria “when conditions or circumstances allow.” In a US Embassy briefing last week, Anne Richard, the assistant secretary at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said the United States’ “main focus is to have aid transferred inside Syria so that Syrians do not have to become refugees.”

Despite several regime violations of the cease-fire negotiated by the US and Russia, Richard said the US “looks to this agreement to reduce violence on the ground.” She said further talks between Russia and US to address Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS) are contingent on endurance of the cease-fire.

By Nadine Ghaith

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