Lebanon's politicians have been quick to respond to Donald Trump's comments at the UN General Assembly that the United States would “seek to host refugees as close to their home country as possible”.
The issue is a sensitive one for Lebanon, where as many as 1.5 million Syrian refugees have fled since civil war broke out in their country in 2011. Lebanon now hosts more refugees per capita than any other country, and ranks third in the world for overall number of refugees.
“We especially thank Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon for their role in hosting refugees from the Syrian conflict,” Mr Trump said on Tuesday during his address to the annual UN meeting in New York.
“We seek an approach to refugee resettlement that is designed to help these horribly treated people, and which enables their eventual return to their home countries, to be part of the rebuilding process," the US president said. "For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region.”
Though Mr Trump did not explicitly say that Syrian refugees in Lebanon should be naturalised, Lebanese politicians were quick to dismiss the possibility.
“Everyone knows Lebanon rejects resettling Palestinians or any other nationalities,” Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri said on Wednesday, referring to the nearly half a million registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who predate the Syrian conflict. Most of them live in 12 camps scattered across the country and have a quasi-legal status that prevents them from owning property outside the camps and often from working legally.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said the issue was “no joking matter” and that Lebanon’s constitution barred resettlement.
But activists said the idea of Syrians settling in Lebanon was being overplayed.
“This was a huge overreaction — he didn’t call for resettlement in Lebanon, in fact he actually called for people to be able to go back,” said Bassam Khawaja, a researcher for Human Rights Watch focused on Lebanon and Kuwait. “Resettlement is just a red herring that parliament keeps bringing up to stoke fears of refugee population.”
Lebanese president Michel Aoun raised the refugee issue in his address to the General Assembly on Thursday but did not refer to Mr Trump's speech.
"There is no doubt that it would be better for the UN to assist them to return to their homelands rather than help them to remain in camps, lacking the basic standards of a decent living," Mr Aoun said.
In fact, many Syrian refugees in Lebanon would rather return home than settle in any country, said Alexandra Tohme, a co-founder of Mishwar, a local NGO that works with young Syrian and Palestinian refugees in northern Lebanon and the communities that host them.
“No one wants to go back more than them. They’re dying to go back, all they talk about is Aleppo, or Homs, or their villages,” she said.
“The issue is that it’s not safe yet, and there’s no guarantees that they won’t be persecuted by the government or any other armed group.”
Mr Trump’s comments come as his administration seeks to limit annual refugee admissions to the US at 50,000, the lowest cap in decades. There were already 50,000 refugee arrivals by July this year, leaving the fate of many asylum applicants unclear.
The US president raised the Syrian refugee issue with Mr Hariri in July, when the Lebanese premier visited Washington to discuss humanitarian and military aid to Lebanon.
“I have repeatedly emphasised that Syria’s neighbours in the Middle East must take responsibility for helping Syrian refugees until they can return home and rebuild their country,” Mr Trump said.
The US has increased aid for Syrian refugees twice this year already, but the UN refugee agency says donors have provided just over a quarter of the more than $2 billion [Dh7.35b] needed to provide basic services to registered refugees in Lebanon. Even that covers only slightly more than one million of the refugees, as the UN stopped registering new arrivals in 2015 at the request of the Lebanese government.
The Lebanese government appeared to break from its stance that it would only support refugee returns to Syria approved by the UN when it helped broker a deals in July and August that saw approximately 10,000 Syrian fighters and civilians leave the area around the northern Lebanese city of Arsal. Many of them were sent to Idlib province in northern Syria, an active war zone partially controlled by a rebel group with links to Al Qaeda.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch raised concerns that more refugees were leaving northern Lebanon for Syria because the situation there had become untenable. Among the reasons cited were the lack of aid, legal status, employment and educational opportunities. Refugees also fear arrest by the Lebanese military, which recently raided camps across the country searching for militants. Four Syrians detained in a raid in northern Lebanon in July died later in army custody.
“Based on the interviews we’ve done with people in Idlib and on-the-ground interviews with people in Arsal, they were not directly forced to go back, but they decided that they were better off returning to a war zone in Syria,” Mr Khawaja said. “Even walking in the street outside of the camps, or going to renew residency at general security — they say people, including children, have been arrested when doing that.”
* Additional reporting by Associated Press