BEIRUT — Lebanon's confusion in managing the return of Syrian refugees to their country is exacerbated after caretaker Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib stepped down from heading a ministerial delegation that was scheduled to visit Damascus to discuss the government's plan entitled "Safe Deportation".

Over the course of a year of efforts by the caretaker government headed by Najib Mikati to convene committees and develop plans that have collided with political and governmental differences, the debate is now raging between two fronts:

  • One, the owners insist on the need to deport Syrians as one of the paths out of Lebanon's crises and to preserve its demographic and social balance, and calls for not giving in to the pressure of Western powers that reject their return.
  • Another, the authors consider that the conditions for safe return are not achieved in Syria, and that Lebanon, which suffers from presidential vacancy and institutional paralysis, is unable to manage a file of this magnitude without UN approval and sponsorship.
  • The situation was further complicated by a wave of responses denouncing the European Parliament's 16-point resolution on the Lebanese situation blaming the political class. Although the resolution is not binding on Lebanon, Article 13 states what Lebanese forces considered support for the refugees' stay, and stipulates that the conditions for safe return are not met, calling on Lebanon to accede to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.

    On Wednesday, Lebanon's foreign minister sent a letter to European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell, denouncing the European decision and saying Syrian asylum "threatens Lebanon's continued existence as an entity."

    Lebanese state says plan to repatriate Syrians aims to ease economic crisis (Al Jazeera)

    Pitfalls of "Secure Migration"

    About a month ago, Mikati, the foreign minister, headed by an official delegation consisting of six ministers and representatives of the Public Security Directorate and the Supreme Defense Council, was tasked with communicating with Damascus to schedule an official visit to discuss the refugee repatriation plan, replacing the title "voluntary return" with "safe deportation."

    Analysts linked the development to Lebanese efforts to normalize the political relationship with Damascus through the refugee gate, in line with the Arab openness to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    About two weeks later, Minister of Displacement Issam Sharafeddine visited Damascus in preparation for the visit of the Lebanese delegation, saying that Syria had agreed to the return of 180,480 refugees in each batch, and "more than <> shelters have been prepared to implement the plan."

    His talks in Damascus focused on:

    • The file of the unregistered Syrians and newborns in Lebanon.
    • File wanted for military service.
    • The file of Syrian prisoners and ways to transfer them to complete their sentences in their country.
    • Ways to form a tripartite committee to follow up on the plan that includes the two governments as well as the UNHCR.

    Here, follows Sharafeddine to Al Jazeera Net "After a month and a half of efforts to implement the plan, surprised the foreign minister to step down, which means going back. Next Monday, we will ask Mikati to meet the cabinet to appoint a new head of the official delegation."

    Sharafeddine insists that security is stable in Syria, and that the economic security of Syrians in their country is the responsibility of international bodies. "We face Western challenges to thwart our plan and threats of sanctions," he added, adding that "the European decision is unfair against Lebanon, and deals with it as a mandatory colony," blaming Western powers for not facilitating the formation of a tripartite committee with the Commission.

    Commenting on the foreign minister's departure from his mission, public policy expert Ziad al-Saegh said, "Lebanese diplomacy is absent from performing its due role towards the repercussions of the Syrian displacement crisis, and relies on improvisation and demagogy."

    The jeweler, in an interview with Al Jazeera Net, that public opinion has not yet understood the content of the government's plan in full, and describes its management of the file as unclear, which "impedes the return of refugees."

    Al-Saegh believes that there is nothing new in the European Parliament's position to link return to the availability of voluntary and safe conditions, "but failure to address the crisis by pressuring the obstructionists of return from the de facto forces in Syria will have catastrophic results for Lebanon and Europe."

    The expert finds that UNHCR is negligent in its handling of the return policy, in contrast to the Syrian regime's lack of enthusiasm for their return, and "translates it into emptying many areas of Syria of their inhabitants."

    Al-Saegh calls for the need to put the issue of displaced persons at the heart of the international diplomatic and political track (in Geneva), to include the file on the agenda of the five-member Arab Liaison Committee, and to "understand the nature of the geodemographic change in Syria due to suspicious ambitions."

    Fears and obstacles

    Observers believe that it is impossible for Lebanon to implement a plan related to the return of refugees through bilateral talks without logistical and material auspices of the United Nations, and because the UNHCR is not part of it, in light of the sanctions on Syria, and before the start of reconstruction.

    Syrian activist in Lebanon Khader Hussein expressed fears that Syrians are unresponsive to their return proposals. He tells Al Jazeera Net, that the most prominent challenge is embodied in the obstacles to renewing residency, "Syrians who entered Lebanon legally when they go to renew their residency issued a decision to deport a large segment of them, not forcibly, but to inform them of the need to leave Lebanon within days, which makes their stay illegal and restricts their movement, because several municipalities do not allow the work of Syrians without legal residency."

    In his field inspection, Hussein summarizes al-Awda's fears as follows:

    • It is impossible to live and access the most basic services in Syria, and because most of the refugees in Lebanon come from devastated areas.
    • The regime has not shown an intention to cancel the military service of returnees.
    • Concern about the mechanism of legal and security settlements and the lack of adequate guarantees about the safety of returnees.
    • Difficulties in returning their homes due to destruction or seizure or legal problems about their ownership.

    Lebanon hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, according to government estimates, and the UN refugee agency says the economic crisis has compounded their suffering (Anatolia)

    UNHCR position

    Thousands of Syrians enter Lebanon through dozens of irregular crossings along the border and through geographically overlapping villages. The Lebanese General Security estimated the number of Syrians at two million and 80 thousand, most of whom do not have regular papers, and reside in about 3100,<> informal camps.

    According to government estimates, Lebanon hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, including 795,322 registered with UNHCR.

    Dalal Harb, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Lebanon, said that the economic crisis, which has lost the Lebanese pound about 95% of its value, and the rise in the prices of basic goods and services by about 700%, have doubled the suffering of refugees, and 90% of them are in need of humanitarian assistance.

    Regarding Lebanon's return plan, Harb explained that UNHCR respects the right of refugees to return freely and voluntarily, and "the majority of refugees express to the United Nations their intention to return, but the question is when?"

    "The refugees' intention to return is linked to the situation inside Syria, and they are concerned about several factors that affect their decision, such as safety, security, housing and living."

    Harb says UNHCR continues to work with actors to find long-term solutions, "such as the resettlement of refugees to third countries and the voluntary return to Syria." "Maintaining a suitable place of refuge and protection in host countries is vital."

    UNHCR is working with its partners, including the Syrian government and host countries, to address the fears of refugees returning in large numbers, and "appeals to the international community not to reduce support to Lebanon."

    Observers wonder whether the Lebanese government insists on requiring UNHCR's refugee database to be used later for deportations. On the fate of refugee information, Harb says UNHCR and the Lebanese authorities are having constructive discussions, including the issue of sharing the database in line with international principles governing data sharing.