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Syrian refugees staying in Lebanon for economic reasons, not security fear: Bassil

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil says Syrian refugees are staying in Lebanon for economic reasons, even though three quarters of them could return to their homeland as they face no fear of political persecution or threat to their security.

“Most of the Syrians – much more than 75% – are no more in security and political fear, but are staying for economic reasons. We know more than 500,000 Syrians are working in Lebanon. They are working everywhere in breach of our labor laws, and yet even though they break the law they are not being repatriated.”

“They are working in Lebanon, taking jobs from the Lebanese because they are paid at cheaper rate as they have no taxes to pay and they are being assisted on top of the wages they are paid,” Bassil said in an interview with British newspaper the Guardian published on Saturday.

Bassil further stressed that it was not his government’s policy to try to force Syrians to return to their country.

The top Lebanese diplomat then lauded his country’s record of welcoming Syrian refugees.

“No one country did what Lebanon did. No one country is able to host 200 refugees per square kilometer, more than 40% of its population… Despite all that we have endured we never thought of forcing anyone to return. We are talking of a dignified and safe gradual return for people who are willing.”

“That now applies to the majority of Syrians in Lebanon because now most of Syria is safe and most of those in Lebanon do not face any political or security obstacles for their return. They are staying because they are assisted to stay in Lebanon, and if they go back to Syria they will lose that assistance. This is the main reason,” Bassil noted.

“They are receiving aid for every aspect of their lives; they are receiving free education, shelter and healthcare. They are better covered on health than the Lebanese. They are afraid that once they leave, they will lose the assistance,” the Lebanese foreign minister asserted.

More than one million Syrian refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon.

The Beirut government estimates that the true number of Syrians in Lebanon stands at 1.5 million.

In February, Lebanon’s minister of state for displaced affairs said his country would stick primarily to a Russian strategy for the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.

“The Russian strategy will be adopted as a basis for our approach toward the return of Syrian refugees to Syria,” Saleh Gharib told China’s official Xinhua news agency on February 6.

He also did not deny the possibility of visiting Syria, or conducting a direct dialogue with high-ranking government officials in Damascus to secure the return of Syrian refugees.

The strategy to help Syrian refugees go back to their homes was drawn up following a meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital city of Helsinki on July 16, 2018.

It specifies about 76 residential neighborhoods in Syria’s central provinces of Homs and Hama, the northwestern province of Idlib as well as Damascus to enable the return of 360,000 Syrian refugees as a first step.

The strategy also entails the rehabilitation of houses in the mentioned areas, which would allow the return of 500,000 more Syrian refugees within two years.

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