EU pledges $1 billion for Lebanon, urges steps against illegal migration

BEIRUT: EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday announced $1 billion in aid for Lebanon during a visit to the crisis-hit country and urged it to tackle illegal migration to the bloc.
The European Union has already agreed deals with Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritania and other countries meant to help stem flows of irregular migrants.
“I can announce a financial package of $1 billion for Lebanon that would be available from this year until 2027,” von der Leyen said, adding that “we want to contribute to Lebanon’s socio-economic stability”.
The European Commission president said the aid was designed to strengthen basic services such as education and health in the country mired in a severe economic crisis.
She called for the adoption of reforms, saying: “Lebanon needs a positive economic momentum to give opportunities to its businesses and citizens.”
Von der Leyen said the EU was committed to maintaining “legal pathways open to Europe” and resettling refugees to the bloc, but added that “at the same time, we count on your good cooperation to prevent illegal migration and combat migrant smuggling”.
Lebanon’s economy collapsed in late 2019, turning the country into a launchpad for migrants, with Lebanese joining Syrians and Palestinian refugees making perilous voyages bound for Europe.
The authorities in Beirut say Lebanon currently hosts around two million people from neighbouring, war-torn Syria — the world’s highest number of refugees per capita — with almost 785,000 registered with the United Nations.
“We understand the challenges that Lebanon faces with hosting Syrian refugees and other displaced persons,” said von der Leyen, adding the EU had supported Lebanon with 2.6 billion euros to host those people.
The war in Syria that erupted in 2011 after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests has killed more than half a million people and displaced around half of the pre-war population.
– ‘Historic day’ –
Lebanon has also faced nearly seven months of border clashes between its powerful, Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah and Israel that flared the day after the Israel-Hamas war broke out in the Gaza Strip.
The eastern Mediterranean country remains essentially leaderless, without a president and headed by a caretaker government with limited powers amid deadlock between entrenched political barons.
Von der Leyen was accompanied by Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, who was on his second visit to Lebanon in less than a month.
Cyprus, the EU’s easternmost member, located less than 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Lebanon and Syria, wants to curb migrant boat departures from Lebanon towards it shores.
It says the Israel-Hamas war has weakened Beirut’s efforts to monitor its territorial waters.
“I am honoured to be part of this day because I consider it a historic day,” said Christodoulides.
“I am very confident that this package announced today will enhance the capacity of Lebanese authority to handle various challenges including controlling land and maritime borders, ensuring the safety of its citizens, fight against people smuggling and continue their fight against terrorism,” the Cypriot leader added.
Some Lebanese politicians have blamed Syrians for their country’s worsening troubles, and pressure often mounts ahead of an annual conference on Syria held in Brussels, with a ministerial meeting set for May 27.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said: “We reiterate our request to the European Union… to help displaced people in their own countries to encourage them to return voluntarily, and thus guarantee them a decent life in their country of origin.
“If we insist on this issue, it is to warn against Lebanon becoming a transit country from Syria to Europe, and the problems at the Cypriot border are just one example of what could happen if this issue is not radically resolved.”

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