BEIRUT — In his Sunday homily, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai called for aid to be given to Syrian refugees "on their own territory," accusing the international community of being against the repatriation of Syrians from Lebanon for fear that they would in turn migrate to their countries.
Rai's comments come at a time when the issue of the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has returned to the forefront of public discourse. The Lebanese government called in late April on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide it with the information it has on Syrian refugees within one week — a demand to which UNHCR has not yet responded. UNHCR stopped registering Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2015, at the Lebanese government's request.
A Lebanese ministerial delegation is due to visit Syria in the coming weeks to discuss the repatriation of refugees.
Willingness to keep refugees in Lebanon?
In his homily, the patriarch stressed that Lebanon is facing "two major crises," the first being the ongoing presidential vacuum, which opened when Michel Aoun's term in office ended on Oct. 31. "The second crisis is the increase in the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which is beginning to weigh on the country economically, socially, demographically and security-wise," Rai said in Harissa, adding that he hopes the government committee formed to follow up on the issue will achieve results.
"We call on UNHCR to cooperate with this committee by providing it with the necessary data" about the presence of refugees in Lebanon, the prelate added, before going on to say, "We are beginning to doubt that the intentions [of the international community] are good, and we wonder if the position of the international community does not hide a desire to keep the refugees in Lebanon. Are they against repatriating them because they fear that the refugees will then emigrate to their countries?"
Rai later asked, "How can Lebanon bear the addition of 2.8 million Syrian refugees and 300,000 Palestinian refugees to its own crisis?"
Estimates of the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon vary between 1.2 million and 1.5 million, but only some 805,000 are registered with UNHCR, as, in 2015, the Lebanese state asked the international organization to stop registering them.
"Give your aid to the refugees on their own territory, in Syria, so that they strengthen their culture and protect their civilization," Rai said, before calling on the international community to "distinguish between the political face and the humanitarian and national face of their repatriation."
International rights organizations have raised concerns over Lebanon's reported efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees, with Amnesty International last month criticizing Lebanon for the “unlawful deportations of Syrian refugees” without “respecting due process.”