Lebanon's FPM calls for repatriation of Syrian refugees

A refugee return conference organised by the Free Patriotic Movement was attended by Hungary's Minister of Foreign Affairs

Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), in October. Matt Kynaston / The National
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The head of one of Lebanon’s largest Christian political parties, the Free Patriotic Movement, urged Lebanon’s government on Thursday to put in place further measures to cut the number of Syrian refugees in the country.

At an FPM-organised conference on the impact of Syrian refugees, party chief Gebran Bassil also appealed to the international community to refrain from pressuring Lebanon “and financing the residency of the displaced on its land while intimidating [Syrian refugees] from returning to their land.”

Among the conference's participants was Peter Szijjarto, Hungary's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Hungary is led by a far-right nationalist government with an explicitly anti-immigration ideology.

It's not the first time Lebanese politicians have courted far-right European figures. In 2017, then-President Michel Aoun met with far-right anti-immigration French politician Marine Le Pen to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis.

The conference theme was “Leave no one behind”, in reference to both the host country’s citizens and its Syrian refugee population.

Mr Bassil stressed the importance of Syrian refugees returning to their country.

As Syria’s war has reached a tentative stalemate in recent years, Lebanon’s politicians have increasingly called for refugee repatriation, arguing that Syria is a safe country. However, government-held areas of Syria with no active conflict have suffered a severe and prolonged economic crisis which has left its citizens without electricity or fuel and facing food shortages.

Lebanon’s economic crisis which began in 2019 has similarly led to soaring inflation and left its citizens with limited goods and services. That has led to widespread resentment of Lebanon's Syrian refugee population, considered by many to be a drain on the state's resources.

Widespread poverty punctuates life in both struggling nations.

Lebanon’s politicians, including Mr Bassil, say Lebanon is ill-equipped to support the some one million Syrian refugees in the country.

“Lebanon cannot be a political asylum,” Mr Bassil said at the conference.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Mr Szijjarto called on the international community to stop managing "dangerous" refugee flows and to instead fix the root causes leading to displacement.

Immigration "is one of the most pressing factors for instability" in Hungary and other countries, Mr Szijjarto warned.

Syrians argue they fear return for political and economic reasons. An army draft awaits most eligible men, and although there is no active fighting in government-held areas, rights organisations say that Syria is still unsafe for returns, documenting arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture by the Syrian government — as well as involuntary or enforced disappearances.

“Syrian refugees who returned between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias,” Human Rights Watch said last year.

Mr Bassil proposed an amendment to the law which regulates the entry and residency of Syrians in Lebanon, as well as the immediate return of those who enter illegally.

He also proposed a law which would return convicted and imprisoned Syrians to their country because they are “neither a displaced person nor an asylum seeker, but a criminal.”

Updated: January 12, 2023, 4:54 PM
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