June 22, 2018 / 1:19 PM / a month ago

Germany's Merkel: Syria must be more secure before refugees return

BEIRUT (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday on a visit to Lebanon that conditions in Syria are not yet right for refugees to return, an issue which has led to a dispute between Lebanon’s foreign minister and the U.N. refugee agency.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkelat the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

The United Nations has registered about a million refugees in Lebanon - nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population.

The Lebanese government, which puts the figure at 1.5 million, says it wants them to start going back to territory where fighting has died down. The international view is that it would not be safe for them to return yet.

“We want to help find solutions in Syria so that a return of refugees can take place ... we need more secure conditions for a return to be possible,” Merkel said in a news conference in Beirut with Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri.

Germany has taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and Merkel is under pressure at home over migration policy, which is threatening to undermine her ruling coalition.

She is playing down expectations of a major breakthrough at hastily arranged talks between some EU leaders on Sunday on the migration dispute, which is dividing Europe.

Lebanese caretaker foreign minister Gebran Bassil has this month accused the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and foreign countries of preventing Syrians returning home.

He ordered a freeze on applications by UNHCR for residency permits for its staff and threatened more measures against them.

UNHCR has denied trying to stop Syrians going home, saying it supports returns when it is safe.

After meeting Merkel on Friday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he asked for Germany to support calls “for the gradual return of displaced Syrians” from Lebanon. Aoun said on Twitter that he “stressed the need to separate between this return and a political solution for the Syrian crisis”.

Lebanon is the world’s third-most indebted nation with a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 150 percent. It climbed from around 130 percent in 2011, before war in neighboring Syria, and the arrival of refugees, depressed growth and paralyzed government decision-making.

In a bid to boost growth and create jobs, donors in April pledged more than $11 billion of investment for Lebanon’s crumbling infrastructure, but they want to see the government make long-overdue reforms in return to bring down debt and create a better investment environment.

A business delegation accompanied Merkel on her visit to explore how German business could participate in the infrastructure projects.

“During our political talks, we pointed out that Germany could participate in the projects, but Lebanon must reform to be more attractive to these investments,” Merkel said.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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