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Lebanese foreign minister adds to calls for refugees to return to Syria

Lebanon and Russia back repatriation following seven years of conflict, even as refugees reject the idea
Russia said it would support Lebanon over the issue during meeting in Moscow (AFP)

Lebanon's foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, has backed Russia's increasingly vocal calls for Syrian refugees to return to their home country after seven years of civil war, during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow on Monday. 

Bassil said he saw no reason for Syrians living in Lebanon not to return, claiming parts of the country were now safe, after his meeting with Lavrov, who has been increasingly pushing for international support for the return of refugees. 

"We invite all friendly nations to handle the Syrian issue realistically. It is not in anyone's interest for Lebanon's economy to collapse under heavy migration," he said. 

Bassil, known for his hostility towards the almost one million Syrian refugees officially living in Lebanon, said he supported Russia's push, claiming the country was playing a "historic role" in the region, according to Russia's TASS news agency. 

Despite the calls for refugee repatriation coming from Russia, Lebanon and the Syrian government itself, the numbers returning have been limited and most refugees do not believe the country is safe. 

Recently, many mocked an appeal posted outside the Syrian embassy in Berlin for refugees to register their status in order to return, calling the idea that they could return to living under the regime they fled "ridiculous".

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Russia has promoted the idea of repatriating refugees as President Bashar al-Assad's forces have gradually seized back ever more rebel-held territory, but many refugees fear the government itself and the prospect of having to fight in the army as conscripts. 

Syrian air force intelligence chief Jamil al-Hassan reportedly told a room of military officers recently that a population of 10 million loyal to Assad was better than "a Syria with 30 million vandals".

Only 3,000 Syrian refugees living in northern Lebanon signed up to a recent scheme to return to Syria's mountainous Qalamoun district, but Lavrov said on Monday that Russia would support Lebanon over the issue.

"I know how much you are worried about the refugee problem. The Russian president said the other day that we are trying to help solve it as soon as possible," he said. 

He accused the US and the international community, who he had asked to help rebuild Syria, of trying to stop refugees returning.  

In June, Bassil slammed the UN refugee agency UNHCR for allegedly trying to prevent repatriation and announced a freeze on residency applications from its staff. 

UNHCR denied the charge. "We respect people's decisions, the individual decisions for people to return," said Rula Amin, its spokesperson in the Middle East.