In a talk given to the University community on Monday, Lebanon Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil had stern words for the international community, repeatedly urging the return of Syrian refugees — 1.5 million of whom have taken residence in Lebanon.
“The international community should not point a finger to Lebanon,” Bassil said. “Rather, it should reward her, as being the best humanitarian model ever in history.”
Bassil spoke to an audience of students, faculty members, and some of his fellow Lebanese in Jones Hall 202 at 4 p.m. He discussed the crisis as well as the actions Lebanon means to take in the future.
Lebanon remains one of the nations most affected by the refugee crisis, with a total of 40 percent of its population consisting of either Syrian or Palestinian refugees.
In Bassil’s view, the international community’s desire for a “political solution” in Syria would only mean a longer stay for the refugees, and the longer they stayed, in his view, the harder it would be for them to return. Bassil called for the international community to take a more active role in assisting in the refugees’ return.
Bassil also took questions from the audience. One audience member questioned Bassil and Lebanon’s empathy for the refugees, while Deborah Amos, journalism professor and NPR correspondent, questioned Bassil’s assertion that a great number of Syrian refugees in his country were economic migrants who could return to Syria if they chose.
Amos cited reports that the Syrian government was forcing those who returned to their country into mandatory military service, tapping their phones, and taking away property.
“One gets the sense that the Syrian government doesn’t want them back,” Amos said. “It’s not that Damascus has opened its arms to people who left, and most of them are not economic migrants, they have a fear of persecution under the 1951 refugee law. There’s a reason they left Syria.”
Bassil responded to the questions by reminding the audience that Lebanon was not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees. He asserted that most of Syria was safe for the refugees to return.
“It is what we want in Lebanon, and surely we want the return of the Syrians,” Bassil said. “Whether it is in the interest of the Syrian government or not, it is their responsibility to accommodate for their own people. Let’s put them on the test whether they want it or not.”
Bassil attributed the international community’s lack of action to three factors: the fear of more refugees coming to Europe and the United States, the desire to use refugees as a political card, and a “tacit policy” of causing demographic movement in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. Bassil claimed that the primary actors responsible for the policy and the migration issue as a whole were the Islamic State and Israel, an accusation that caught a few audience members off guard.
“Parts [of the lecture] seemed really xenophobic to me — particularly at one point he went on quite the rant about Israel, which seemed a little unfair, if not rather off-topic,” said Jack Allen ’21.
Allen was also alarmed by Bassil’s assertion that much of Lebanon’s economic woes were a result of the Syrian refugees.
Bassil stated that over the last three years of refugee resettlement, the Lebanese had lost 250,000 jobs to the Syrians and unemployment had increased from 9 percent to 20 percent.
Bassil ultimately concluded that for the sake of the country’s economic future and continued security, the return of refugees back to Syria should be a top priority for Lebanon. He contrasted his own ideas with European policies, which he viewed as ultimately detrimental.
“The unlimited tolerance shown by some Europeans is threatening their identity, and thus their existence,” said Brasil. “Lebanon knows how to weigh and balance both identity and tolerance. Therefore, the international and Arab communities should be responsible for the return.”
Bassil assumed the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of the Republic of Lebanon on February 15, 2014. He was also elected to the Lebanese Parliament in May 2018 and currently heads the biggest parliamentary bloc, and has led the Free Patriotic Movement party since 2015.