EU ambassadors, Lebanon discuss ties, refugee issues

Ambassadors of the European Union and Lebanese officials gathered on Friday to discuss the EU’s relations with Lebanon and the bloc’s policies in the region.

German Ambassador to Lebanon Georg Birgelen focused mainly on the EU’s policy toward Syrians in Lebanon, saying Europeans do not want to link the refugees’ return to their homeland to a political solution in Syria.

Dubbed “the European Union and us,” the conference aimed at shedding light on some of the most important challenges facing Lebanon and the region.

The flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon following the civil war in Syria has become one of the biggest challenges facing Lebanon since 2011.

More than 1 million Syrian refugees are registered with the UN Higher Commission of Refugees in Lebanon, while the Lebanese government estimated the true number of Syrians in the country at 1.5 million.

Lebanese officials have on many occasions called upon the international community to help Lebanon secure a safe return for refugees in a bid to ease the burden on the country’s economy and infrastructure.

The Lebanese authorities have urged the international community to assist Syrians in their country instead of providing financial support in Lebanon which does not encourage their return to Syria.

However, Birgelen does not consider that the help for Syrians in Lebanon encourages them to stay in Lebanon.

“The financial help that Syrian refugees receive in Lebanon covers only 70 percent of their needs while they work or borrow money to cover the rest of their expenses,” Bigelen said.

He also noted that the cash provided to Syrian refugees in Lebanon is circulating in the Lebanese economy because these people spend their money on rent and food.

“Refugees, for instance, are buying two thirds of their food products from Lebanese farmers,” he said, adding most of the EU’s assistance to refugees in Lebanon goes to municipalities.

EU’s support also helps pay for more than 50 percent of the ministerial budget for Lebanon’s water ministry, the German ambassador explained.

Tarek Mitri, a former Lebanese minister, told EU ambassadors during the conference that many Lebanese people view the EU’s support to refugees as insufficient.

“Many Lebanese views the support by the Europe Union as falling in the interest of the EU to keep refugees in Lebanon and away from European countries,” Mitri said, calling for bilateral relations based on shared values.

“Lots of Lebanese view the EU only as a donor and they want unconditional support. What we want is cooperation based on shared values,” Mitri added.

Meanwhile, EU Ambassador to Lebanon Christina Lassen said the EU has been of great support to Lebanon even before the Syrian crisis but this support has definitely increased after the crisis.

French Ambassador to Lebanon Bruno Foucher said France has always adopted a policy that is different from that of the United States in the Arab region.

However, he said France is facing a dilemma toward the U.S. policy in the Arab region in different areas because there is no unified position in France toward relations with the United States.