TUE 16 - 7 - 2019
Date: Sep 12, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Aoun addresses expats, rebukes intl community
Joseph Haboush| The Daily Star
STRASBOURG, France: President Michel Aoun drew praise from European lawmakers Tuesday as he reminded them of the heavy burden Lebanon has shouldered regarding the refugee crisis, even as he rebuked them for their lack of support.

He also criticized the United States' recent decision to halt its funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, and lambasted Israel for having staked a claim to Jerusalem as its capital.

Finally, late Tuesday, Aoun addressed the delay in the government formation, now in its fourth month of deadlock, when speaking with members of the Lebanese diaspora.

He attributed the delay to the messiness of the democratic project: “You have to reach a consensus, and this is not easy in pluralistic country,” he said. However, he clarified that an agreement would be reached “in the end.”

Aoun arrived in Strasbourg, France, Monday on a three-day visit at the invitation of parliament head Antonio Tajani. On Tuesday, he spoke at the opening of the 2018-2019 European parliament session, where he appealed to the international community for assistance in the Syrian refugee crisis, which he criticized as “one of the heaviest fallouts of the neighborhood wars.” He said, “You must easily realize the extent of the burden we are shouldering at a time when the international community did not bear its responsibilities to support Lebanon.”

Aoun called for activating the “resolutions of material support” made at the Brussels conference held in April on the refugee crisis, during which international donors pledged an estimated $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid for 2018 for countries that shelter refugees.

Although this is a considerable sum, it fell significantly short of the $7 billion-plus that the U.N. was hoping to attract.

After the conference, the European Union and the United Nations had released a joint statement stressing “the need to ensure that any evacuation of civilians must be safe, informed, temporary, voluntary in nature and a solution of last resort, including the destination of their choice, the right to return and the choice to stay, as per [international humanitarian law].”

It had also called for the “integration of refugees” into the labor market, which subsequently drew a quick rebuke from Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.

Aoun addressed the calls made in the EU-U.N. statement once again Tuesday, reminding the lawmakers of “our reservations about some of what its final declaration featured, particularly related to the issue of voluntary return of the displaced, linking it to the political solution [to the Syrian crisis], as well as their integration in the labor market in their countries of displacement.”

He added: “It is worth reminding here that Lebanon is a country of emigration and not a country of settlement, nor an open market for labor.”

Following Aoun’s speech, Tajani appeared to express agreement with Aoun, saying he believes that Syrians should return to their hometowns and villages.

“Thanks to Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been able to survive [this war]. But now, we must allow them to go back home,” Tajani said.

Tajani pronounced that Lebanon’s goodwill gesture of taking in refugees couldn’t be forgotten. “Thanks to your commitment to taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, we have reduced the presence of refugees here in Europe,” he said.

He expressed support for the urgent need to facilitate the return of refugees without waiting for a political solution to the 7-year-old Syrian crisis. This is the stance Lebanon has adopted and that Aoun expressed hope for in his speech.

Speaking on the sidelines of Tuesday’s meetings, a Middle Eastern diplomat based in France said that Tajani’s comments were significant because he himself is Italian. “Italy is facing a massive refugee crisis as well, so he is going to agree with what Aoun is saying, but there are over 700 EU MPs, so his stance alone won’t help Lebanon’s refugee crisis,” the diplomat said.

Aoun’s visit to France comes as Lebanese General Security has coordinated several refugee returns with the Syrian government, even as the country’s competing political sides debate the extent to which the government should engage with the Syrian regime.

Also factoring prominently into Aoun’s parliament address was his critique of the United States’ decision to halt funding to UNRWA. This “marks the beginning of imposing settlement on the refugees’ host countries, notably Lebanon, whose Constitution prohibits settlement, partition or division, and which also rejects this reality for the sake of justice and equality among humans,” he said.

Aoun went on to lambast Israel’s decision to claim Jerusalem as its capital, “disregarding international resolutions and the vote in Security Council and General Assembly.” He said, “It did not content itself with this, but rather adopted the law on the Jewish nation-state of Israel.” Following this comment, the MPs erupted in applause.

According to a statement from both Aoun’s office and the EU, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini expressed strong support for UNRWA’s ongoing work, and she briefed Aoun on preparations for an EU-hosted event on Syria during this month’s upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York. Mogherini reaffirmed the EU’s “continuous support to the security sector in Lebanon and to the Lebanese Armed Forces.”

As for Lebanon’s fears of repercussions as a result of funding cuts to UNRWA, she informed the president that the EU and other countries have increased their budget for pledges to UNRWA, a statement from the presidency said.

Separately, Aoun met with Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration and home affairs. A statement from Aoun’s office said Avramopoulos would be making a trip to Lebanon soon to continue discussions of the refugee crisis as well as increased cooperation between Beirut and the EU.

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