Lebanon prime minister and president call for help returning Syrian refugees

The country has been struggling to host well over 1 million displaced Syrians

A Syrian refugee plays with his pet bird at a refugee camp in the village of Mhammara in the northern Lebanese Akkar region on March 9, 2019.  / AFP / Ibrahim CHALHOUB
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Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday called on the international community to help Syrian refugees return home.

The remarks came as a three-day international conference on the Syrian refugee response kicked off in Brussels.

Lebanon has long called for more support to host hundreds of thousands of refugees. Just under 1 million displaced Syrians are officially registered with the UN in Lebanon, but the number is believed to be much higher since the country suspended the registration of new arrivals after 2015.

Lebanon has had the highest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world and the impact of the neighbouring conflict has had massive repercussions on its economy. The Lebanese government is requesting $2 billion (Dh7.3bn) to help mitigate the impact of hosting displaced Syrians however it has for some time now been calling for refugees to return to Syria.

Speaking to a French parliamentary delegation in Beirut on Tuesday, Mr Aoun said, “We wish that France and European states would help Lebanon return displaced Syrians to safe areas in Syria, especially as the reports we are receiving say that those who have returned are living in reassuring conditions.”

While several Lebanese politicians have been saying for over a year that there are many areas of Syria that are now safe, the UN and others in the international community have warned against rushing to have people go home. UN officials have pointed out that there are still risks for people going back and that under international laws on refugees their return must be voluntary.

Mr Aoun also said that some 167,000 had already voluntarily returned home from Lebanon so far.

Mr Hariri, who is scheduled to attend the Brussels summit on Wednesday, said the meeting was “an essential opportunity” to discuss options to return refugees.

"We will go to the Brussels conference because we want the return of the displaced,” Mr Hariri said. “But there is a reality that needs to be dealt with – they are here, on our land, and we have to help them and help the host communities. In Brussels, we will discuss any prospective progress with regard to the return of displaced people."

The Brussels meeting is the third major support conference for refugees and was set up to create a longer-term plan for the huge response needed to support the nearly 6.6 million displaced inside Syria and the 5.6 million refugees from the conflict that started eight years ago this week.