Hezbollah chief urges Beirut to allow Syrian migrant boats to leave for Europe

Hezbollah chief urges Beirut to allow Syrian migrant boats to leave for Europe

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Monday urged Lebanese authorities to open the seas for migrant boats to reach Europe, amid soaring anti-Syrian sentiment and accusations the West is seeking to keep refugees in Lebanon.

His remarks came in an apparent bid to pressure the European Union after it announced earlier this month $1 billion in aid to Lebanon to help tackle irregular migration.

Many in crisis-hit Lebanon have criticised the aid package as focused on preventing refugees from leaving the country, amid mounting calls for them to return home.

In a televised address, Nasrallah called for “a national decision that says: we have opened the sea… whoever wants to leave for Europe, for Cyprus, the sea is in front of you. Take a boat and board it.”

But “we do not propose forcing displaced Syrians to board boats and leave for Cyprus and Europe,” he added in the speech, broadcast on the group’s Al-Manar television channel.

Cyprus, the EU’s easternmost member, is less than 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Lebanon and Syria, and wants to curb migrant boat departures from Lebanon towards its shores.

Currently refugees “are prohibited (from leaving), and so they turn to smuggling and to rubber boats, and there are drownings in the sea, because the Lebanese army is implementing a political decision to stop them from migrating,” Nasrallah added.

Lebanon says it currently hosts around two million people from neighbouring Syria — the world’s highest number of refugees per capita — with almost 785,000 registered with the United Nations.

Lebanon needs to tell the West that “we all have to coordinate with the Syrian government to return the displaced to Syria and to present them with aid there,” Nasrallah said.

He also urged Lebanon’s parliament to press the EU and Washington to lift sanctions on Syria that Damascus says are blocking aid and reconstruction efforts, adding: “If sanctions on Syria aren’t lifted, there will be no return” of refugees.

Nasrallah’s remarks came a day before Lebanon is expected to resume “voluntary returns” of Syrians, with dozens of families set to pass through two land border crossings in the country’s east, a year and a half after such returns were paused.

Lebanon’s economy collapsed in late 2019, turning it into a launchpad for migrants, with Lebanese joining Syrians and Palestinian refugees making perilous Europe-bound voyages.

Some Lebanese politicians have blamed Syrians for their country’s worsening troubles, and pressure often mounts ahead of an annual conference on Syria in Brussels, with ministers meeting this year on May 27.

Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned that Syria is not safe for returns.

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