The permanent settlement of Syrian refugees is a choice left up to the host country, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a letter to Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, apparently seeking to allay Lebanon’s fears over refugee settlement.
The letter was delivered Friday by the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag who visited Bassil at the Foreign Ministry.
“The United Nations will continue to firmly work to reach a settlement of the conflict [in Syria] and reduce the burdens placed on some countries, including Lebanon,” Ban said in the letter. Ban said he supported Bassil’s position to help Syrians return to their country once the fighting has stopped.
The Lebanese government sent an official letter to Ban in December 2015 complaining that U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 granted refugees a “voluntary” right to return to Syria.
Bassil at the time argued that this resolution may allow for the prolonged presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
In his letter, Ban said the return of “peace in Syria will allow the United Nations to contribute toward creating the necessary conditions for a voluntary return of the refugees in safety and dignity.”
The return to their home is the best solution for the majority of the [Syrian] refugees, Ban said. He added that there should be international protection for the Syrian refugees to return home, given the lack of protection from their government.
Therefore, the return of the refugees hinges on a radical change in the conditions in Syria, Ban said.
However, the U.N. chief stressed that the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees is exclusively the host country’s decision.
There are 1.1 million refugees officially registered with U.N. agencies in Lebanon. But authorities believe the actual number is much higher. Prime Minister Tammam Salam has put the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at 1.5 million. This influx of refugees, who have fled their homes since the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011, has added strain to Lebanon’s already-poor infrastructure.
Ban said in his letter that the United Nations is constantly searching for more financial assistance for Lebanon to help it cope with the Syrian refugee crisis and is also seeking the means for Syrian refugees to be accepted in other countries.
Salam requested $11 billion in financial aid from the international community during last month’s London Donors’ Conference to help Lebanon deal with the massive influx of refugees. Lebanon’s share remains unknown.
Ban expressed the U.N.’s deep gratitude for Lebanon over hosting more than one million registered Syrian refugees.
The United Nations will continue in helping the Lebanese government in shouldering this extraordinary responsibility, Ban said.
The U.N. chief added that the world body was working with the World Bank and other partners to enlist support and strengthen the resources of the refugee host countries “in order to contain the shock that hit the economy and social fabric” of these countries.
Separately, Bassil also met at the Foreign Ministry with a delegation from the Lebanese Business Council in the United Arab Emirates with whom he discussed tensions between Lebanon and Gulf states following Saudi Arabia’s decision last month to freeze a major military aid package to the Lebanese military.
Sifian Sobhi al-Saleh, the delegation head, said the meeting with Bassil was intended to relay the concerns of the Lebanese expatriates living in Gulf states in general, and the UAE in particular, following the outbreak of a diplomatic rift with Saudi Arabia that has strained Lebanon’s ties with Riyadh over perceived “hostile” positions linked to Hezbollah and Iran at Arab League and Islamic meetings.
“The situation is worsening and it cannot be left like that. An approach must be found to rectify Lebanese-Gulf relations and reduce the current tensions,” he told reporters.
Saleh pointed out that remittances from the 500,000 Lebanese in Gulf states, which are estimated at $8 billion annually, are “a keystone in the Lebanese economy and they cannot be ignored.”
He added that Bassil, who showed understanding of the Lebanese concerns, said he was ready to do what he can to improve Lebanon’s ties with Gulf states.
Last month, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar warned their citizens against travel to Lebanon.
The travel ban came days after Riyadh said it was halting $4 billion in grants to purchase arms for the Lebanese military and police after stances were made by Lebanese officials at Arab League and Islamic meetings “which were not in harmony with the ties between the two countries.” The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council Wednesday branded Hezbollah a “terrorist organization,” in a new move signaling a further deterioration in ties between the party and Gulf countries.