BEIRUT: Official sources involved in talks on Lebanon’s refugee crisis have told The Daily Star that serious discussions are ongoing to find an acceptable and reasonable solution. This process, led by the Foreign Ministry in coordination with Baabda Palace, was boosted after the meeting between President Michel Aoun and the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at last month’s U.N. General Assembly.
“The international bodies began to understand the problem that the Syrian crisis is inflicting on Lebanon, with the number of refugees believed to have reached 1.75 million,” one source said.
The U.N. refugee agency has a little over 1 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon.
The sources added that the proposed solution would look to classify refugees into two categories. The first would be for political refugees – those who chose to leave their country for political reasons and would not be called upon to leave Lebanon until their safety is guaranteed.
“The second category ... will be classified as ‘economic refugees’ and these are Syrian refugees who work in Lebanon ... but still receive aid from the U.N. and go back and forth between Lebanon and Syria,” the source said.
The source noted that, as those in the second category already travel voluntarily to certain areas or towns in Syria, because “they consider the areas to be safe,” there is no reason for them to remain in Lebanon.
The second category would be asked to return to these safe zones, the source said – adding that this could be facilitated swiftly, unless delays were caused if Lebanon were required to coordinate with international bodies or the Syrian state. “There should be no objection to [refugee returns], especially because Lebanon continues to have diplomatic ties with Damascus,” the source said.
But the source denied that any party had been delegated the task of discussing the plan with the Syrian authorities.
“Communications between the Lebanese and Syrian security authorities have not stopped, especially between General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and his Syrian counterparts,” the source said.
The refugee crisis has long been a controversial issue in Lebanon, with one political camp calling for direct negotiations with the Syrian regime and the other calling for the U.N. to oversee the return of the refugees.
Amal, Hezbollah and Marada ministers have recently visited Syria despite receiving no official backing from the Lebanese government for these trips. The Lebanese Forces, Future Movement and Kataeb have all heavily criticized the ministers’ visits. They demand the United Nations should coordinate any return of refugees.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil met with his Syrian counterpart in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, drawing the ire of the same political parties. Prime Minister Saad Hariri publicly voiced his opposition to the meeting.
Although the U.N. and other international bodies have said the time is not right for the return of Syrian refugees, Lebanese factions have said the decision should be up to the Lebanese.