Fears are growing for the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanonafter the country’s new refugees minister made a surprise visit to Damascus this week to discuss their return.
Saleh Gharib, an outspoken supporter of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, said Lebanon would work to “secure the return” of refugees to Syria, where human rights organisations report they are subject to abuse and arbitrary detention.
He explained that the Syrian government “believes that the failure to return the displaced Syrians would be a blow to the victory of the Syrian state”.
The previous refugees minister, Mouin Merehebi, a critic of the Assad regime, said last year that at least 20 refugees had been killed since returning.
Gharib’s appointment was seen as evidence of a potential rapprochement with Damascus as other Middle Eastern countries move towards ending the pariah status of the war-torn nation.
His visit to Damascus “sends the message that the new government will take an increasingly active pro-return stance,” said Elena Hodges of SAWA, an NGO supporting Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Anti-refugee sentiment has grown in Lebanon as the new arrivals increase the burden on public services and are blamed in the media for a stagnating economy.
Other analysts cast doubt on a reversal of Lebanon’s refugee policy, however.
“At the end of the day the Lebanese government knows that if they start pushing refugees out in a way that is deemed unsafe by the international community, they will probably pay for it in terms of international assistance,” said Jasmine el-Gamal of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, summoned Gharib upon his return to Beirut and there was confusion over whether he had authorized the trip in advance. Last week Hariri warned that the “Syrian regime wants to take revenge against the refugees” and has reportedly resisted calls to normalise ties with Damascus.
110,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2018, according to Lebanese General Security chief who is a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime
But the UNHCR estimates the true number to be in the low tens of thousands.