Lebanon is forming a joint committee with Russia to facilitate repatriation of nearly one million registered Syrian refugees, following a meeting between top Lebanese officials and a Russian delegation.
The Russian presidential envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev met Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, caretaker Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, and caretaker Minister of State for Refugees Affairs Mouin Merehbi in Beirut on Wednesday.
Discussions were "positive" Mr Merehbi told The National, with everyone "eager for the return of refugees."
Nearly one million Syrians are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, but officials say the number of Syrian refugees in the country is as high as 1.5 million. With Lebanon hosting the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide, officials are keen for Syrians to return home.
“A Lebanese-Russian committee will now be set up which will include other parties such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as well as representatives of other countries,” Mr Merehbi said. “The committee will work on the best way to deal with the refugees”.
Lebanon will seek guarantees form the Russians – whose troops in Syria support the government of President Bashar Al Assad – that refugees would only be returned to safe areas, Mr Merehbi said. “Our position is for a voluntary, safe and dignified return for refugees.”
Beirut will also seek the UN's involvement in repatriations. "We would expect and like the UNHCR to play a role in the logistics," special adviser to Mr Hariri on refugee affairs Nadim Munla told The National. "They have been invited to Sochi next week" for Syrian peace talks, he added.
The Lebanese Prime Minister is seeking to capitalise on Russia’s proposal to the United States last Friday to jointly organise the repatriation of Syrian refugees after agreements reached by Russian president Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump.
The latest Russian initiative also includes Jordan and Turkey, who with Lebanon have borne the brunt of Syria’s refugee crisis.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun has repeatedly called for a return of Syrian refugees to areas he describes as safe even before a political solution to the war is found. “My country cannot handle it anymore,” he told international envoys in October last year.
On Tuesday, Nikolay Burtsev, the Russian representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that “just 30 000 Syrians that were actively involved in combat [in Syria] expressed their desire to stay in Lebanon. The rest are ready to return to Syria as the environment stabilises there.”
In the past few months, refugees have started returning voluntarily to Syria in their thousands from the region of Arsal, in North-East Lebanon. The returns have been facilitated by one of Lebanon’s main intelligence branches, General Security, which worked closely with the Syrian authorities. The director of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, also met Russian officials last Wednesday, according to local media.
Up to now, the UNHCR in Lebanon has assisted refugees in their administrative procedures before returning to Syria but has not participated in organising returns. The UNHCR said in a statement: “It is critical that returns of refugees… are not pressured, rushed or premature.”