Syrians slam Lebanon's Maronite patriarch over refugee comments

Syrians slam Lebanon's Maronite patriarch over refugee comments
The head of Lebanon's Maronite church has called for Syrian refugees to be deported to their country, prompting criticism from rights activists.
3 min read
11 April, 2023
Over 900,000 registered Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, according to UN figures [Getty/archive]

The head of the Maronite Church in Lebanon has caused controversy over comments he recently made regarding Syrian refugees in the country, calling for the international community to help deport them to Syria.

Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai said Syrian refugees were competing with Lebanese for jobs sparking criticism online. Syrian journalists and activists accused him of incitement.

The situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has become more difficult amid Beirut’s worst ever financial and economic crisis, which has seen banks lock people out of their savings, an energy sector meltdown, a crumbling infrastructure, shortages in medicines, and endless public sector strikes.

Rights groups however have warned that Syria is not safe for Syrian refugees to return to and that refoulment - forced return of refugees - is illegal under international law.

The UN says that the number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon is just under a million while Lebanese authorities give much higher estimates.

A ministerial plan last year to start repatriating 15,000 Syrian refugees a month sparked outrage from the UN’s refugee agency and other organisations. The scheme did not go through.

During his Easter service message, al-Rai said Syrian refugees were "draining the state’s resources, disturbing social security, and competing with the Lebanese for their livelihood."

He claimed many refugees were frequently travelling to and from Syria via legal and illegal crossings, accusing the international community of "protecting them" and "deciding to ignore the repercussions they have on Lebanon".

"It is necessary for Lebanese representatives and officials to work with the international community to return them [refugees] to their homeland and help them there," he said.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which has displaced most of the millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, is still in power and refugees returning to Syria have been tortured and forcibly disappeared by regime security forces.

It was not the first time the Maronite patriarch or other religious and political officials have made such remarks, claiming that most areas of Syria were safe.

The director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights Fadel Abdul-Ghani said international laws related to refugee rights should be considered before making such statements.

Abdul-Ghani accused the patriarch of "inflammatory speech" against a vulnerable group of people, pointing out that they were receiving international aid, rather than Lebanese government subsidies.

"The aid that refugees receive is a natural right for them, and it is unnatural for them to be denied the right to work or to be forced to return to the rule of the Syrian regime," he said in an interview with Arabi21.

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The head of the Syrian Association for Refugee Rights Mudar Hammad al-Asaad also rejected al-Rai’s statements categorically.

"Everything that the Maronite patriarch issued is not true, especially his talk about Syrian refugees competing with the Lebanese for their livelihood," he told Arabi21.

However he said that this did not mean forgetting that Lebanese people welcomed the large number of refugees.

Al-Asaad stressed that the majority of Syrian refugees relied on themselves to secure their livelihoods, in addition to the aid that comes from the UN and Arab states such as Qatar.

The 12-year conflict in Syria has displaced around half of the country’s pre-war population and has killed hundreds of thousands of people. Turkey and Jordan also host large Syrian refugee populations amid growing xenophobia in Turkey in particular.