Lebanese politicians play populist card in face-off with UNHCR

Rather than work with the UN agency to forge a solution to the refugee crisis, the Lebanese state opted to estrange and intimidate it.

“God helps those who help themselves” — an adage that urges people to take initiative and responsibility — is perhaps most relevant to the Lebanese, whose failure to address their ever-compounding problems, chiefly the Syrian refugee crisis, has placed a colossal burden on the country’s infrastructure and its failing economy.

While Lebanon’s refugee crisis is a burden involving both the Lebanese state and the international community, the former has miserably failed to help itself alleviate the effects of the crisis. Above all, the Lebanese government has yet to deploy a national refugee plan to ensure it receives funds from the international community and relevant agencies, primarily the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Rather than work with the UN agency to forge a solution to the refugee crisis, the Lebanese state opted to estrange and intimidate it, blaming UNHCR and the international community for impeding the return of the refugees to Syria.

By deliberately classifying 1.2 million Syrians in Lebanon as “displaced” rather than refugees, the government is shirking responsibility for their well-being and failing to recognise that their return rests on a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.

The Lebanese government’s relationship with the UNHCR hit rock bottom when Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, condemned the UNHCR for allegedly scaring and discouraging refugees from returning home. Bassil suspended the renewal of UNHCR staff’s residency permits, declaring senior members of this invaluable aid programme personas non grata.

Contrary to what he and his political party maintain, Bassil’s reckless move was not a reaction to an alleged violation of the UNHCR mandate but a populist, xenophobic ploy.

Bassil’s standoff with the UNHCR came shortly after Aoun received a European delegation of the far-right Alliance for Peace and Freedom party. Speaking to the group, led by Italian fascist Roberto Fiore, Aoun unleashed a barrage of accusations against the United Nations and the European Union.

Aoun, an ally of both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran, said the conflict in Syria has ended and it is safe for displaced Syrians to return but that process was being hindered by the international community.

Farouk al-Moghrabi, a Lebanese barrister and adviser to the minister of state for human rights, said that position was deceptive and lacks legal substance.

Bassil’s “unilateral decision to confront the United Nations comes in breach of the dissociation policy adopted by the Lebanese states,” Moghrabi said. “His demand for an immediate return of the refugees disregards all the spirit of the human rights conventions governing refugees that dictates clear criteria based on international law and validated by the United Nations.”

In his ongoing witch-hunt, Bassil demanded the UNHCR provide a clear plan for the return of refugees within two weeks.

Ziad el-Sayegh, a public policy expert who is a senior national policy adviser to the Ministry of State for Displaced Affairs, said “the responsibility of drafting a national refugee policy rests on the Lebanese state in coordination with the UNHCR, Lebanon strategic partner in this field.”

“It would have been mutually beneficial for Lebanon to sign a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations rather than adopt the current measures under Bassil, which incapacitates both the Lebanese as well as the Syrian refugees,” he said.

Sayegh pointed out that the same people who are leading a populist charge against refugees and the UNHCR had blocked many attempts by the Lebanese government since 2012 to establish refugee facilities on the Lebanese-Syrian border, which led to the refugees dispersing throughout the country.

While Bassil has the authority to freeze and deny residency visas to members of the international organisation, such measures should be approved by the entire cabinet because they have significant ramifications on Lebanon’s standing with the international community.

Strangely, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has yet to remind Bassil of the folly of his populist adventure, which puts Lebanon in a tight spot with international donors who recently pledged billions to the country, mainly to help it deal with the refugee crisis.

Rather than merely criticise Bassil’s statement, Hariri could have convened an emergency meeting of the ministerial subcommittee on refugees and reminded Bassil that his actions are imprudent and outside his portfolio.

Bassil’s accusation that the UNHCR is working to deny refugees their right of return is nothing but a ridiculous conspiracy theory, no more believable than that sick African children were sent medicine laced with AIDS in the 20th century. Senseless populism has become a mainstream movement within Lebanon and Bassil’s recent sideshow and bullying of the UNHCR is a case in point.

Bassil will keep creating fictitious monsters to scare the Lebanese into submission and to distract from the many scandals and corruption schemes he and his allies have been implicated in, some of which ironically contribute to making the Syrian refugees permanent guests of Lebanon.

Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.

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