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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Merkel finds a familiar attitude to refugees in Lebanon

Opposition to Syrians' continued presence in Lebanon reflects push by German leader's coalition ally to keep migrants out

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meet in the presidential palace in Beirut on June 22, 2018. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meet in the presidential palace in Beirut on June 22, 2018. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Lebanon at the weekend focused primarily on the main issue plaguing her at home as well – how to deal with refugees and migrants.

But while Mrs Merkel reaffirmed support for Lebanon and “the tremendous burden it has shouldered” in taking in as many as 1.5 million Syrians who fled the war in their country, her visit did little to resolve the growing opposition to refugees in Lebanese and German politics.

In recent weeks, both Lebanon’s foreign minister and its president have argued loudly that Syrian refugees should begin returning to “safe” parts of Syria, even before a final political settlement is reached to end the civil war there, now in its eighth year.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and President Michel Aoun both met Mrs Merkel on Friday, with Mr Aoun formally asking "Germany's help in supporting Lebanon's position that the Syrian refugees should return to the safe areas in Syria”.

Mr Aoun and others have also suggested that the international community intends to permanently resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon and have them naturalised as Lebanese citizens.

Mr Aoun also voiced the concern that a final political solution in Syria might be less conducive to refugee returns than even the current situation.

"If the solution is delayed and the balance of power [in Syria] is altered, who could then guarantee the return of the displaced to their country?" the president asked Mrs Merkel, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.

The German chancellor, for her part, was careful to voice support for what has been the Lebanese government’s official position since the beginning of the refugee crisis – that returns should be co-ordinated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“We want to contribute to reaching a political solution in Syria that would enable the Syrian refugees to return to Syria, and we are co-operating with the international organisations and with the UNHCR,” Mrs Merkel said during a press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Germany is the second largest donor to the UNHCR, and Mrs Merkel's trip came after Mr Bassil froze residency permits for the refugee agency’s staff in Lebanon after accusing it of attempting to “scare” Syrians out of returning to their country.

Mr Bassil was present when Mrs Merkel met Mr Aoun, though there is no indication the two discussed the matter.

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Back in Germany, Mrs Merkel faces a similar challenge from her interior minister. Horst Seehofer has threatened to begin turning migrants back at the German border from July 1 unless Mrs Merkel can convince other EU countries to more equally support the millions of migrants who have made their way to Europe from the Middle East and Africa since 2015.

Germany has taken in more than half a million migrants since then, more than any other country, making Mrs Merkel the world leader perhaps most associated with the issue. But her stance on immigration could be her undoing.

“Merkel is in the most difficult time of her chancellorship, and some people believe her government will fail because of this issue,” said Maximilian Felsch, associate professor of political science at Haigazian University in Beirut.

While in Lebanon, Mrs Merkel also touched heavily on other major issues in the country – its deep indebtedness, decrepit infrastructure, and the conundrum international donors face in continuing to fund a country that is considered one of the most corrupt in the world.

Germany has long been a donor and lender to Lebanon, most recently pledging €60 million (Dh257m) in April for infrastructure projects.

The Lebanese government has promised to make structural and economic reforms in exchange for foreign contributions, though such assurances have come up short in the past.

“It’s not just a dilemma for Germany, but also for the EU. But stabilising a corrupt country is better than having an unstable country,” Mr Felsch said.