As many as three quarters of Syrian refugees in Lebanon could return to Syria because they face no fear of political persecution or threat to their security, Lebanon’s controversial foreign minister has said.
Gebran Bassil also urged the UK to rethink how it was spending aid money on keeping 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, where he said they were taking the jobs from the Lebanese, and undercutting wages.
The UK has supplied as much as £500m to help house, feed and educate Syrian refugees in Lebanon since the start of the ciivl war in 2011.
Bassil is the son in law of the president, Michel Aoun, and the leader of the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement, the largest political party in the country’s parliament. Last week he faced allegations of racism that he denies after it was alleged he had implied that some refugees might be corrupt.
In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “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 working in Lebanon. They are working every where in breach of our labour 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 paid at cheaper rate because they have no taxes to pay and they are being assisted on top of the wages they are paid.”
Aid agencies working with refugees have cited concerns over loss of property and conscription into the Syrian army and fear of reprisals as major reasons why they did not want to return home. The agencies have resisted Lebanese government efforts to tear down any semi-permanent structure put up by refugees.
Bassil insisted it was not his government’s policy to try to force Syrians to return to their homeland.
He added: “The British taxpayers are paying money for an unlimited period of time that is not being spent in the right direction. They should be paid to return to their country. As President Trump said, money spent on a refugee to go back to his country is much much less than to keep him out of his country.”
He defended his country’s record of welcoming Syrian refugees. He said: “No one country did what Lebanon did. No one country is able to host 200 refugees per square kilometre, more than 40% of its population. Imagine here in Britain you are receiving 50 million people. That is the comparison.
“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 the Lebanon, and if they go back to Syria they will lose that assistance. This is the main reason.”
Bassil added: “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”.
He said the number of movements across the border is 700,000 to 800,000 a month, and people who hold refugee cards go regularly to Syria and come back to Lebanon.
“The tension is mounting internally. Our economy is really collapsing. How can you put your own economy on your feet when you carry this burden.”
Bassil also denied that any of his remarks could be construed as racist, arguing every country puts its citizens first.