World ‘affirms commitment’ to Lebanon on refugees

The Lebanese delegation is focusing on our host communities, and on securing funding for the programs that are in place to help them: minister

Lebanese general security members check luggage of Syrian refugees returning to Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2018. Picture taken December 6, 2018.

Lebanese general security members check luggage of Syrian refugees returning to Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2018. Picture taken December 6, 2018.

REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

BEIRUT: The international community voiced its commitment to helping Lebanon cope with the Syrian refugee crisis during a conference in Brussels, a member of the Lebanese delegation to the conference told The Daily Star.

“Everybody is still committed to helping Lebanon cope with the crisis through all programs that support Syrian refugees,” Social Affairs Minister Richard Kouyoumjian said over the phone from the Brussels conference, being held to discuss the future of Syria and the region.

The Lebanese delegation “is focusing on our host communities, and on securing funding for the programs that are in place to help them.”

Eight years after the crisis began, conditions remain dire for most of the 11.7 million Syrians worldwide dependent on aid.

United Nations humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said Wednesday that “without an immediate and substantial injection of funds, lifesaving provisions of food, water, health care, shelter and protection services will likely be interrupted.”

The U.N. says $3.3 billion is required to help meet Syria’s aid needs, plus another $5.5 billion to support Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where most Syrian refugees reside. Lebanon is asking for more than $2 billion in Brussels, the majority of which would go to communities hosting a large number of the more than 1 million refugees residing in the country.

About 55 countries and 80 delegations are expected to attend the final day of the meeting Thursday, where monetary pledges are set to be announced.

The U.N. and the European Union, which jointly organized the conference, are hoping for a better return than at the previous Brussels conference, in 2018, when the $4.4 billion in pledges fell far short of expectations. The U.N. was seeking $9.1 billion at the time.

Kouyoumjian and Education Minister Akram Chehayeb arrived in Brussels ahead of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who will address attendees in a speech at the main event Thursday. Nadim Munla, an adviser to Hariri, told Mustaqbal Web the premier would emphasize in his speech that the international community must “shoulder its responsibilities” on the refugee issue. Hariri would urge “creative solutions” to ensure the return of refugees, and would call for increased support for Lebanese host communities.

Hariri is also expected to note that there can be no solution to the crisis other than the return of Syrians to their country.

The numbers for refugees who have returned to Syria from Lebanon vary widely depending on the source.President Michel Aoun said recently that 167,000 Syrian refugees had returned voluntarily - though he gave no time frame - while the United Nations refugee agency the UNHCR said in December that since last July, it had verified only about 16,000 returns.

Lebanese General Security said at the end of 2018 that more than 100,000 refugees had returned to Syria from the country.

In Brussels, the premier will also meet with the EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini; U.N. special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen; and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

Over the past two days, the official Lebanese delegation has held a series of meetings with international and local humanitarian organizations, and with officials from the U.N., the EU and the United States.

“I explained during my meetings the deep challenges Lebanon is facing on the humanitarian level, the social tension that exists in Lebanon now ... and the need for refugees to return to their country,” Kouyoumjian said.

The education minister also met with the EU’s Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn to discuss “the importance of education for every child,” a tweet from Hahn’s account said.

Hahn voiced the EU’s commitment to providing funding for the education of some 200,000 Syrian refugee children in donor-supported Lebanese public schools. Hahn also met with Kouyoumjian.

The conference may take a more sharply political turn Thursday.

Mogherini has encouraged participants to move beyond the strictly humanitarian aspect of the conference toward support for a political transition in Syria.

The EU has said a credible transition process will have to precede any large-scale move to support reconstruction inside the country, which itself is seen as key to ensuring the widespread and sustainable return of refugees.

“The conference should not only be a fundraising exercise. It must be accompanied by a political message on the conditionality of aid for reconstruction and the denial of impunity for Syrian leaders guilty of crimes,” a European diplomat told Agence France Presse.

Some EU states led by far-right or nationalist governments - including Austria, Hungary, Italy and Poland - have shown support for direct engagement with regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad on the issue of refugee returns and reconstruction. But the EU has officially tied its support of reconstruction to a U.N.-led peace effort.

“There is no question of normalization with the Damascus regime, which some EU countries would be willing to do,” a European diplomat said.

Still, concessions have been made as Assad moves toward military victory in the war.

“I believe we will have to work with the current regime during a transitional phase, because it is obvious that this regime is on the verge of a military success,” Hahn told AFP.

Several countries are insisting on another condition - holding those suspected of war crimes to account.

In 2018, seven countries in total - Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium - vowed that “not a single person responsible for the crimes committed in Syria will be able to escape justice.”

Back in Lebanon, Hariri met with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and discussed ways to expedite the work of the government on electricity, refugees, the economy, the fight against corruption and the appointments of personnel to military and administrative positions.

Cabinet is not set to meet this week because of Hariri’s trip to Brussels, which means ministers will have met only three times since the government won a confidence vote almost a month ago.

Speaker Nabih Berri said that the priority was the endorsement of the state budget. The speaker has given the government and Parliament until the end of May to conclude work on the 2019 budget, which is supposed to slash the deficit-to-GDP ratio by at least 1 percent. - With AP and AFP

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