BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria has told Lebanon it wants refugees to return to help rebuild the country, its envoy to Lebanon said on Monday, after Beirut expressed concern that a new land redevelopment law could discourage them from going home.
Lebanon, which is hosting some 1 million registered Syrian refugees, wrote to the Syrian government last month over “Law 10”, which aid and rights groups fear could result in Syrian refugees losing their property in the country.
“Law 10” came into effect in April as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria. The law has yet to be applied.
One of big concerns with the law is that it gave people just 30 days to stake ownership claims once an area is designated for redevelopment, according to rights activists and aid groups. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem said on Saturday this time period had been extended to one year.
Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government, had expressed concern over the limited time frame in a letter to the Syrian government last month.
Ali Abdul Karim, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, delivered a letter from Mualem to Bassil, foreign minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government, on Monday.
Abdul Karim told reporters that the letter responded to questions posed by Bassil. The letter said that “Syria is in need of … all its sons and is eager for the return of all its sons”, he said.
Last week, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, a top Lebanese state figure and head of the General Security agency, said Beirut was working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria.
A conference on Syria hosted by the European Union and co-chaired by the United Nations in April said conditions for returns were not yet fulfilled, and that present conditions were not conducive for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity.
President Michel Aoun has called the large numbers of Syrian refugees an existential danger to Lebanon, reflecting a view that the presence of the mainly Sunni Syrian refugees will upend the fragile balance between Lebanese Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims and other sectarian groups.
Amnesty International has said “Law 10” effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the law is not about dispossessing anyone.
(Reporting by Beirut bureau; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)