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Lebanon can no longer cope with refugees, says Aoun

Aoun seems to have toned down his language since September when he called on refugees to return “voluntarily or not”

  • Lebanese women protesting on Saturday in the northern town of Zouk Mosbeh, calling for the departure of SyriImage Credit: AFP
  • Lebanese President Michel AounImage Credit: Reuters
Gulf News

Beirut: The international community needs to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon return to “calm” parts of Syria, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Monday, saying Lebanon can no longer cope.

Aoun said he wanted the safe return of refugees and was not asking those who have political problems with the Syrian government to go back, the presidential media office said.

Aoun also asked international aid agencies not to “scare” refugees who want to return from doing so.

Aoun seems to have toned down his language since September when he called on refugees to return “voluntarily or not”.

He was on a visit to France where he said UN assistance given to aid Syrian refugees in “camps of misery” in Lebanon would be better used to return them to their country “from now on.”

“We don’t want to wait for their voluntary return,” Aoun insisted, speaking at the Elysee Palace alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.

Aoun claimed that most of the Syrian regions from which the refugees hail are “now secure.”

At the time, Macron distanced himself from Aoun’s comments, saying that the absence of a political solution in Syria prevents refugees from returning back home permanently.

For six years, tensions have simmered as 1.5 million Syrians poured into Lebanon, equal to around a quarter of its population. Refugees have faced waves of hostility since the conflict in neighbouring Syria took hold.

But the debate over their presence has taken a harder edge in recent months, fuelled by political leaders who say Lebanon has lost patience with the social and financial burden of the refugee crisis.

In recent months, most of Lebanon’s main parties have united in pushing for repatriation, a difficult demand as war has ravaged much of Syria. Rights groups have warned against forced return, and refugees often say they fear conscription into the Syrian army.

Calls for refugees to return come as the Syrian government shores up its rule over the main urban centres and ceasefire deals have eased fighting with rebels in parts of western Syria.

The United Nations refugee agency has not seen a growing trend of reported attacks against Syrians, but has voiced concern about mounting tensions.