Lebanon urged to conclude working arrangement with EU border agency to prevent illegal migration

BEIRUT: The EU has announced an aid package for Lebanon of 1 billion euros ($1.06 billion) to help boost border control and halt the flow of asylum-seekers and migrants from the country across the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus and Italy.

It comes against a backdrop of increasing hostility toward Syrian refugees in Lebanon and a major surge in irregular migration of Syrians from Lebanon to Cyprus.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, meanwhile, has decided to reduce healthcare coverage for registered Syrian refugees by 50 percent.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during her visit to Beirut with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides that they hoped Lebanon would conclude a “working arrangement” with Frontex, the EU’s border agency.

Von der Leyen said the aid’s distribution will start this year and continue until 2027.

The aid will be dedicated to the most vulnerable people, including refugees, internally displaced people, and host communities.

The EU assistance — which is tied to Lebanon’s need to implement the required reforms and control its borders and illegal crossings with Syria — came in the wake of continued hostilities on the southern front between Hezbollah and the Israeli military.

The two officials arrived in Beirut following the European Council’s special meeting last month.

At the end of the meeting, the council confirmed the EU’s “determination to support the most vulnerable people in Lebanon, strengthen its support to the Lebanese Armed Forces, and combat human trafficking and smuggling.”

It also reaffirmed “the need to achieve conditions for safe, voluntary and dignified return of Syrian refugees, as defined by UNHCR.”

The visit lasted hours in Lebanon and included a meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. 

Following a tripartite meeting and an expanded discussion in which ministers and security officials participated, Mikati commended the EU’s understanding of the Lebanese state’s demand to reconsider some of its policies regarding assistance to Syrian refugees in the country.

Mikati said: “Lebanon has borne the greatest burden, but it can no longer endure the current situation, especially since the refugees constitute around one-third of Lebanon’s population, which results in additional difficulties and challenges and exacerbates Lebanon’s economic crisis.”

He added: “What is more dangerous is the escalating tension between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host community due to the crimes that are increasing and threatening national security.”

Mikati emphasized that “Lebanon’s security is security for European countries and vice versa,” adding that “our cooperation on this matter constitutes the real entry point for stability.”

He added: “We refuse to let our country become an alternative homeland, and everyone knows that the solution is political excellence.”

Mikati called for the EU and international actors to recognize that most Syrian areas have become safe, which would facilitate the refugees’ repatriation and allow them to be supported in their home country.

As a first step, those who entered Lebanon in 2016 must go back, as most of them fled for economic reasons and are not considered refugees, said Mikati.

He warned against “turning Lebanon into a transit country to Europe,” saying that “the problems occurring on the Cypriot border are a sample of what might happen if the matter was not radically addressed.”

Von der Leyen, the first European Commission president to visit Lebanon, affirmed her “understanding of the Lebanese position.”

She said: “We want to contribute to Lebanon’s socio-economic stability by strengthening basic services and investments in, for example, education, social protection, and health for the people of Lebanon.

“We will accompany you as you take forward economic, financial, and banking reforms.

“These reforms are key to improving the country’s long-term economic situation. This would allow the business environment and the banking sector to regain the international community’s trust and thus enable private sector investment.”

The EU official said that the support program for the Lebanese military and other security forces “will mainly focus on providing equipment, training and the necessary infrastructure for border management.

“In addition, it would be very helpful for Lebanon to conclude a working arrangement with Frontex, particularly on information exchange and situational awareness.”

She continued: “To help you manage migration, we are committed to maintaining legal pathways open to Europe and resettling refugees from Lebanon to the EU.

“At the same time, we count on your cooperation to prevent illegal migration and combat migrant smuggling.”

Von der Leyen said: “We will also look at how we can make the EU’s assistance more effective. This includes exploring how to work on a more structured approach to voluntary returns to Syria, in close cooperation with UNHCR.”

She also stressed that the international community should strengthen support for humanitarian and early recovery programs in Syria.

Von der Leyen added: “We are deeply concerned about the volatile situation in southern Lebanon, and believe that the security of both Lebanon and Israel cannot be disassociated.

“So, we call for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

“This needs to be part of a negotiated diplomatic settlement. The Lebanese armed forces are critical here, too, and the EU is ready to work on bolstering their capabilities.”

Christodoulides said that European assistance, which also includes “combating smuggling and managing borders and monitoring them,“ would “enhance the Lebanese authorities’ ability to confront various challenges such as monitoring land and sea borders, ensuring the safety of citizens, combating human trafficking, and continuing counterterrorism efforts.”

The Cypriot president said the “reverberations of the issues and challenges” that Lebanon was facing directly affected Cyprus and the EU.

“We need to work with our partners and UNHCR to discuss the issue of voluntary returns and reconsider the situation of some areas in Syria.”

He emphasized that Lebanon must implement the “necessary and deep reforms in line with the International Monetary Fund’s demands and address issues of accountability, and Cyprus will support Lebanon’s efforts to elect a new president, a development that will send a strong political and symbolic message for change and moving forward.”

Parliament Speaker Berri told the European official that Lebanon “does not want war, and since the moment the Israeli aggression began, it has remained committed to the rules of engagement, which Israel continues to violate, targeting the depth of Lebanon, not sparing civilians, media personnel, agricultural areas, and ambulances, using internationally banned weapons.”

Berri said that Lebanon, “while awaiting the success of international efforts to stop the aggression on the Gaza Strip, which will inevitably reflect on Lebanon and the region, will then be ready to continue the discussion on the implementation of UN Resolution 1701, to which Lebanon was and still is committed and adheres.”

Berri urged “the concerned parties to engage with the Syrian government, which now has a presence over most of its territories, in addressing the refugee issue.”

 

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