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EU unveils €1-billion aid package for Lebanon in bid to curb refugee flows

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, center, welcomes Cyprus' President Nikos Christodoulides, left, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, center, welcomes Cyprus' President Nikos Christodoulides, left, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission Copyright Hassan Ammar/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Hassan Ammar/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn JonesAïda Sanchez Alonso
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The European Union will provide €1 billion in financial aid to Lebanon over three years to prop up the country's economy and help prevent a surge in refugees leaving for Europe.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the move on Thursday morning following a meeting with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.

The financial envelope, made up entirely of grants and to be dispersed by 2027, will help Lebanon strengthen basic services such as education, social protection and health, and spur economic reforms in the crisis-stricken country, von der Leyen said.

But some three quarters of the cash - a total of €736 million - will be specifically dedicated to helping Lebanon grapple with the challenges it faces in welcoming Syrian refugees.

"We understand the challenges that Lebanon faces with hosting Syrian refugees and other displaced persons. It is vital to ensure the well-being of host communities and Syrian refugees," von der Leyen said.

The Commission chief also vowed to "look at how to make the EU's assistance more effective," including facilitating a "more structured approach to voluntary returns" of displaced Syrians in cooperation with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

It comes after EU leaders backed deeper engagement with Beirut last month to help safeguard it from the repercussions of the conflict in the Middle East, and after Cyprus raised the alarm over a sharp peak in the number of Syrian refugees arriving from Lebanon.

It also follows a string of agreements signed over the last year between Brussels and African countries in a bid to stem migration into Europe.

A deepening economic crisis and fragile government make Lebanon particularly vulnerable to the instability gripping the region in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

The country is home to some 210,000 Palestinian and 1.5 million Syrian refugees, prompting fears regional instability could unleash a wave of migrants towards Europe via the island of Cyprus.

Cash to stem refugee flows

In early April, Cyprus announced it would temporarily halt the processing of asylum applications due to a surge in arrivals of Syrian refugees transiting through Lebanon and attempting to reach the island, which lies just 260 km off the Lebanese coast in the Mediterranean Sea.

Over 1,000 people arrived in Cyprus by boats from Lebanon during the first two weeks of April, leaving refugee and reception centres on the island overloaded.

"The problems seen on the Cypriot border is only one example of what could happen if this problem is not addressed," Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati acknowledged on Thursday, thanking Cyprus' President Christodoulides for brokering the agreement.

Hailing the announcement as "historic", Christodoulides said that the financial envelope would address a situation that is "not sustainable" for either Lebanon, Cyprus or the European Union.

"While we commend the Lebanese government for hosting a large number of Syrian refugees for more than 12 years, we are also fully cognisant of the enormous pressure that this creates to your economy and to your society," Christodoulides said.

He backed von der Leyen's proposal of intensifying work with partners such as UNHCR on voluntary returns, where refugees who want to return to their home countries - even if the UN agency considers it unsafe for them - are supported to do so.

Christodoulides also went further by calling for the status of some regions of Syria to be "re-examined" as safe areas to facilitate the return of migrants and refugees, a proposal he tabled at last month's summit meeting of EU leaders.

Syria, which has been under the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad for more than two decades, has been designated an unsafe country since the civil war erupted in 2011. But refugee host countries such as Turkey and Lebanon have been pushing for the mass return of Syrian refugees to the country.

A European Commission spokesperson confirmed that the EU has followed the lead of the UNHCR in their approach to safe zones in Syria, and that Brussels is "embarking now on discussions to see how to approach this issue in the upcoming period."

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Von der Leyen also floated a working arrangement between Lebanon and the EU's border agency, Frontex, "particularly on information exchange and situational awareness." The agency currently has such arrangements in place with 19 partner countries.

Security of Lebanon 'at stake'

Both Christodoulides and von der Leyen also acknowledged the threat posed by the war between Israel and Hamas to Lebanon's security.

The Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah is present in the country and has continuously exchanged fire across Lebanon's southern border with Israel since the outbreak of the war last October.

Hezbollah also took part in Tehran’s unprecedented aerial attack on Israel last month.

"We are deeply concerned about the volatile situation in South Lebanon. What is at stake is the security of both Lebanon and Israel. The two cannot be disassociated," von der Leyen said.

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Von der Leyen asked for a UN resolution calling on Israel to withdraw its troops from the Blue Line, the border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel, to be respected.

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