EU announces 1 billion euros in aid for Lebanon amid a surge in irregular migration

BEIRUT — The European Union announced on Thursday an aid package for Lebanon of 1 billion euros — about $1.06 billion — that will mostly go to strengthening border control to halt the flow of asylum seekers and migrants from the small, crisis-wracked country across the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus and Italy.

The deal follows other recent deals by the EU to provide funds to countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Mauritania to fortify their borders. It comes against a backdrop of increasing hostility toward Syrian refugees in Lebanon and a major surge in irregular migration of Syrian refugees from Lebanon to Cyprus.

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the aid, which will be distributed between this year and 2027, during a visit to Beirut alongside Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides.

Von der Leyen said the EU will also be “exploring how to work on a more structured approach to voluntary return to Syria in close cooperation with” the U.N. refugee agency, or UNHCR, and called for more international support for humanitarian and early recovery projects in Syria.

Europe will also continue to maintain “legal pathways” for resettlement of refugees in Europe, she said.

Lebanon’s Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati praised the aid package, saying that “Lebanon’s security is security for European countries and vice versa.”

“Any blowup related to the issue of displaced persons will not be limited to Lebanon but will extend to Europe to become a regional and international crisis,” he said.

Lebanon, which has been in the throes of a severe financial crisis since 2019, hosts nearly 785,000 registered Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands more who are unregistered, the highest population of refugees per capita in the world.

Lebanese political officials have been calling for years for the international community to either resettle the refugees in other countries or assist in returning them to Syria — voluntarily or not. Lebanese security forces have stepped up deportations of Syrians over the past year.

Tensions around the presence of refugees have further flared since an official with the Christian nationalist Lebanese Forces party, Pascal Suleiman, was killed last month in what military officials said was a botched carjacking by a Syrian gang. The incident prompted outbreaks of anti-Syrian violence by vigilante groups.

Meanwhile, Cypriot authorities have been complaining that their country has been overwhelmed by a wave of irregular migration of Syrian asylum seekers, many of them coming on boats from Lebanon.

The Lebanon office of the UNHCR said it had verified 59 “actual or attempted” departures by boats carrying a total of 3,191 passengers from Lebanon between January and mid-April, compared to three documented boat movements carrying 54 passengers in the same period last year.

Usually, few boats attempt the crossing in the winter, when the passage becomes more dangerous. In total, UNHCR recorded 65 boat departures carrying 3,927 passengers in all of 2023.

Cyprus has taken increasingly aggressive tactics to halt the flow of migrants. Last month, it suspended processing of Syrian asylum applications, and human rights groups accused the Cypriot coast guard of forcibly pushing back five boats carrying about 500 asylum seekers coming from Lebanon.

Christodoulides hailed Thursday’s visit as a “historic day” and praised the EU decision, calling for European officials to go farther and declare some areas of Syria safe for return.

“The current situation is not sustainable for Lebanon. It is not sustainable for Cyprus, it is not sustainable for the European Union,” he said.

The new funding announcement comes ahead of the annual fundraising conference for the Syrian crisis in Brussels later this month. After 13 years of civil war in Syria, donor fatigue has set in while the world’s attention is occupied by the humanitarian fallout of more recent conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.


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