Congress rebukes Lebanon over Syrian refugee transfers

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Article Summary
Congress is asking the State Department to weigh in on Lebanon’s dispute with the UN refugee agency as it seeks to repatriate thousands of Syrian refugees.

Lebanon is coming under increased scrutiny over its deal with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to repatriate thousands of refugees back to Syria and Lebanon's ensuing spat with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

Now US lawmakers, already skeptical of Beirut over Hezbollah’s influence in the country, are chiming in as well.

Tucked into the report accompanying the Senate’s annual spending bill is a provision directing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “work with the Government of Lebanon to ensure that it is fully cooperating with UNHCR to find safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable solutions for Syrian refugees.” The bill cleared committee late last month and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

The report language is the latest signal that some US politicians are getting increasingly irritated with their Lebanese counterparts, especially following Hezbollah’s success in elections earlier this year, which increased its influence in the government. After the elections, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House panel overseeing the Middle East, called for a reassessment of US military aid to Lebanon. Pompeo likewise called for a review of military aid while testifying before House lawmakers the very next day.

The fact that Lebanese officials, working in an unofficial capacity, brokered the refugee transfers with the Assad regime has made the deal even more unpalatable in Washington. However, Lebanese politicians from multiple parties and sects, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, have called for the repatriation of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the country, arguing that Lebanon has unfairly shouldered the burden without the resources to care for them.

Lebanon froze residency permits for UNHCR staff in Lebanon after the agency criticized Beirut’s deal with Damascus to repatriate Syrian refugees on a voluntary basis. A spokesman for the agency told Al-Monitor that the UN is “not currently in a position to start encouraging or organizing the return of Syrian refugees.” Lebanon’s caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in turn charges that the UNHCR is discouraging Syrians from volunteering to return home by “spreading fear.”

A spokesman for the Lebanese Embassy in Washington told Al-Monitor that Lebanon is calling on the UNHCR to discuss a new policy “in which the prevention of early return is replaced by encouraging a safe and dignified return.” To that end, Beirut has asked the agency to hand over its registry of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The embassy spokesman said Lebanon wants to withdraw registration cards from refugees it classifies into three categories: economic migrants, refugees with homes who want to return to Syria and refugees without homes who nonetheless wish to return. The embassy argues that the third category “could continue to receive UNHCR assistance inside Syria, and they should not be threatened with having aid cut off if they return.”

More than 3,000 Syrian refugees, mostly from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, have so far registered for the agreement, and Damascus has given the green light for 450 to return. Some returning refugees, meanwhile, have told the media that living conditions in Arsal are so bad and Lebanon’s policies on refugees so onerous that the Syrians have little choice but to return to an uncertain future under the Assad regime.

Damascus has promised not to arrest the returnees, most of whom are headed back to villages in the western Qalamoun area and Modamiya, near Damascus. The UNHCR spokesman told Al-Monitor that agency officials are “seeking access to the return villages, but so far have not been able to visit.”

A report this week from Human Rights Watch concluded that while “there is no evidence that recent returns of Syrians have been forced,” volunteers only agreed to leave because of “harsh living conditions, largely as a result of Lebanese policies that have restricted legal residency, work, and freedom of movement.” The report also accused Lebanon of deporting refugees from Arsal against their will last year.

“Lebanese politicians have claimed that areas in Syria are ‘safe,’ but this ignores the volatile nature of the Syrian conflict, in which more than 900,000 people have been displaced within Syria in the first four months of 2018 alone,” said the report. “Aside from [the] generalized conflict, many refugees fear arrest, torture, and forced conscription if they return.”

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Found in: Refugees

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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