Lebanese Parliament Speaker threatens to suspend cabinet support over coronavirus expat policy

Stranded Lebanese expats struggle to receive aid because of a financial crisis in their home country.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri threatened on Saturday to suspend his support for the government if it did not act to bring home expatriates stranded abroad during the coronavirus pandemic.

The disease, which originated in China and spread rapidly across the world, has infected over 660,000 people and killed over 30,000. Almost 150,000 people have recovered. In Lebanon, ten people have died out of 438 reported cases.

"If the government keeps its position on the issue of the expatriates beyond this coming Tuesday we will suspend our representation in the government," Mr Berri, head of the Shiite Amal Movement, said in a statement from his office.

Shortly after Mr Berri's statement, the chairman of Lebanon's flagship Middle East Airlines, Mohamed Hout, told local television channel Al Jadeed that the company was ready to repatriate expatriates "at its own expense," immediately after "official instructions to do so." MEA is majority owned by Lebanon's central bank.

The government has been hesitant to allow expats to board planes home.

Citing fears that returnees could contaminate others, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Friday that no returns would take place before April 12, when the government is expected to lift the state of “general mobilisation”. Mr Diab highlighted that Lebanese expatriates had four days to return home before Beirut’s international airport closed on March 18.

However, some Lebanese stuck abroad are struggling to get by, their situation complicated by tight restrictions imposed by Lebanese banks on transfers abroad and cash withdrawals from ATMs overseas.

 

A Lebanese student stranded in Italy previously told The National that MEA delayed several flights to Lebanon until it was too late. Approximately 60 students had bought tickets to Beirut before March 18 but were unable to return, he said.

Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti said on Thursday that Lebanese citizens abroad must undergo a test to make sure they are not carrying coronavirus before boarding a flight home but did not say when they could return.

Mr Berri, 82, is one of Lebanon's most powerful figures and named two ministers in the current government, which would be paralysed were he to withdraw his backing. He also has a significant support base in the country's large diaspora.

Though the government touts itself to be independent, political parties nominated ministers along the usual sectarian lines when the government was formed last January after months of nation-wide protests caused by the country’s financial crisis.

Several other Lebanese politicians also expressed concern over the treatment of expatriates on Saturday.

“Whatever the threats are, the Lebanese authorities must respond to the pleas of the expatriates,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, an Amal ally. “Preventive measures can be taken to guarantee a safe return to the expatriates,” he added.

Gebran Bassil, who heads president Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, said that “in principle, a country cannot prevent the return of its citizens.”

Another politician, Samir Geagea, attacked the government on the issue, expressing concern that countries struggling to cope with outbreaks would prioritise the treatment of their own nationals over expatriates.

Lebanon has recently stepped up measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 by imposing a curfew between 7pm and 5am for shops and people. Streets are patrolled by the army and the police which fines offenders.

But this has led to incidents as the country struggles with rising poverty. On Saturday, a man on a motorbike attempted to self-immolate after he was stopped by the police. A few days earlier, a taxi driver torched his car after he was fined for also violating the new coronavirus confinement rules.

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