Lebanon president tells Syrian refugees to return home

Lebanon president tells Syrian refugees to return home
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun has told international envoys that his country has had enough of hosting Syrian refugees and that they should return back to the war-torn country.
3 min read
16 October, 2017
Aoun is known for his backing of the anti-Syrian regime [Getty]

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has called on Syrian refugees in the country to return home, as anti-immigration sentiments rise in the country.

Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million Syrian refugees - accounting for around a quarter of the population - with most living in precarious conditions and in dire poverty.

But opponents fear that the mostly Sunni Syrian refugee population could upset the country's sensitive sectarian and political balance and cause further strains on local resources.

"My country cannot handle it anymore," Aoun told members of the EU, Arab League and five permanent members of the UN Security Council who visited him in Beirut, according to Reuters.

He did insist there were no plans to forcibly relocate refugees back to Syria, where they could face persecution from authorities or other risks from fighting.

Aoun tweeted that Syrians should be encouraged to return to areas that are less affected by violence, likely referring territories covered by the so-called "de-escalation" zones set-up by Iran, Turkey and Russia.

"The return of displaced to stable and low-tension areas must be carried out without attaching it to reaching a political solution," he wrote.

Syria's opposition has insisted on a political transition to end the six-year war in the country, which would see President Bashar al-Assad step down from power.

Syria's regime and its backers have rejected these calls and appear closer to winning the war.

Among those backing Assad is Lebanon's Shia movement Hizballah, who have sent thousands of fighters to Syria to back the regime.

Aoun was backed by Hizballah to become Lebanon's president last year and is viewed as being a strong supporter of the Syrian regime.

Lebanon witnessed a series of controversial population transfer deals earlier this year, which saw the surrender of rebel, Fatah al-Sham and Islamic State group fighters in the east of the country following a joint army and Hizballah offensive.

They were transferred to western Syria along with their families - and other civilians not connected to the groups - in a move condemned by many international organisations who saw it as an act of ethnic cleansing.

There have been vocal anti-Syrian refugee protests in Lebanon, with a new right-wing political party set up last week to oppose immigration in the country.

An estimated 11 million Syrians - around half the population - have been forced to flee fighting in the country, with around 6 million becoming refugees in neighbouring countries.

Fighting began when the Syrian regime brutally suppressed anti-government protests in 2011, leading to mass defections from the military and the beginning of an armed revolt.

The vast majority of the half a million killed since then - and millions more made homeless - have been from rebel areas, which have been subjected to almost daily bombing by regime and Russian aircraft.