EU Pledges $1bn For Lebanon, Urges Curbs Against Illegal Migration

EU head Ursula von der Leyen offered $1 billion in funding to Lebanon on Thursday to combat illegal migration, as rights organizations warned against forced returns to Syria.

The European Union has previously reached agreements with Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritania, and other countries to assist reduce irregular migration.

“I can announce a financial package of $1 billion for Lebanon that would be available from this year until 2027,” the European Commission chief said, adding that “we want to contribute to Lebanon’s socio-economic stability”.

She said the aid was designed to strengthen basic services such as education and health amid a severe economic crisis.

Europe will also support Lebanon’s army, with the aid “mainly focused on providing equipment and training for border management”.

The EU Commission’s spokesman said in Brussels the aid will be disbursed “in grants”, with 736 million euros earmarked to support Lebanon “in response to the Syrian crisis”.

He said “264 million euros will be for bilateral cooperation”, notably to support the security services, including with border management.

‘Forced returns’

Von der Leyen stated that the EU was dedicated to keeping “legal pathways open to Europe” and resettling refugees, but that “at the same time, we count on your good cooperation to prevent illegal migration and combat migrant smuggling”.

Lebanon’s economy crumbled in late 2019, transforming the country into a migration hub, with Lebanese joining Syrians and Palestinian refugees on risky journeys to Europe.

Lebanon estimates it presently accommodates around two million Syrian refugees, the world’s biggest number per capita, with nearly 785,000 registered with the UN.

“We understand the challenges that Lebanon faces with hosting Syrian refugees and other displaced persons,” said von der Leyen, adding the EU had supported Lebanon with 2.6 billion euros to host them.

The Syria conflict began in 2011 as the government crushed nonviolent pro-democracy protests, and it has killed over 500,000 people and displaced over half of the pre-war population.

Before von der Leyen’s travel to Beirut, eight rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, cautioned that Syria was not safe for return.

According to the statement, “EU assistance geared to enabling or incentivizing returns to Syria risks resulting in forced returns of refugees.”

EU funding to Lebanese security services to combat migration to Europe “could result in Syrians taking even longer and more dangerous routes,” they claimed.

Lebanon has also endured nearly seven months of border warfare between its powerful, Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah and Israel, which erupted after the Israel-Hamas conflict began in October.

People smuggling

Lebanon remains virtually leaderless, with no president and a caretaker government with limited authority due to impasse among entrenched political barons.

Nikos Christodoulides, President of Cyprus, accompanied von der Leyen.

Cyprus, the EU’s easternmost member, lies fewer than 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Lebanon and Syria, and it wants to reduce migrant boat departures from Lebanon to its coasts.

Nicosia claims that the Israel-Hamas conflict has hindered Beirut’s ability to monitor its territorial seas.

“I am very confident that this package announced today will enhance the capacity of Lebanese authority to handle various challenges including controlling land and maritime borders, ensuring the safety of its citizens, fight against people smuggling and continue their fight against terrorism,” Christodoulides said.

Some Lebanese lawmakers have blamed Syrians for their country’s deteriorating situation, and pressure frequently builds ahead of an annual Syria summit in Brussels, with ministers attending this year on May 27.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged the European Union to assist displaced individuals in their home countries, encouraging voluntary return and ensuring a good existence.

“If we insist on this issue, it is to warn against Lebanon becoming a transit country from Syria to Europe, and the problems at the Cypriot border are just one example of what could happen if this issue is not radically resolved.”

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