It is an honour to be here today with key partners of the European Union. Minister Bassil, Minister Derbas and Mrs Kaag, I would like to thank you for your efforts undertaken in addressing this crisis. I would also like to thank the Maronite League, and in particularly President Klimos, for organising this debate on a topic of a vital importance for Lebanon and for all of us.
We have all seen how the influx of refugees can spark massive challenges. Lebanon, hosting the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, understands the meaning of these challenges very well. The whole world has been impressed by the generosity and hospitality of the Lebanese people faced with this completely unexpected situation.
The question of refugees and migrants has been one of the main points on all our governments’ agenda in the past years, whether in Europe or in this region. We all realise how sensitive the topic of the refugee crisis is. But in this discussion we cannot forget that behind the numbers there are real people, real human beings that we need to help.
Lebanon has been providing this help to the extent that many Lebanese ask themselves why and how long their country should continue to take on this burden. This is understandable given the sensitive composition of the Lebanese social and political tissue, the fact that Lebanon itself did not fully re-emerge from the war and subsequent conflicts, and that Lebanon has already been hosting for decades hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. And this is why the European Union as a close partner of Lebanon has been committed to do all we can to support Lebanon in this situation – politically as well as security wise and financially.
Massive movements of people, whether in form of refugees or increasing numbers of migrants is part of our reality now. And the European Union is committed to play its role in the global response to this challenge.
When it comes to the international response to the conflict in Syria, the European Union has been the leading donor with from the European Union and Member States collectively mobilised in humanitarian and development assistance since 2012. This support goes to Syrians in their country as well as to refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon.
At the same time, the European Union is sparing no effort working with its partners to create the conditions for a political solution in order to put an end to the conflict in Syria, and to ensure that conditions are safe for refugees to return and to contribute to the reconstruction of the country. We all want the same for the refugees: that they will be able to return to their country safely. But to create safe environment for return we need to make sure that we are can take responsibility for their full protection. And this cannot be guaranteed when the war is on-going.
The European Union is fully supporting the United Nations-led process leading towards a political solution to the Syria crisis. The agreement between the United States and Russia last Friday will hopefully pave the way for progress on this path. And the EU is ready to provide support to stabilisation and reconstruction, once a political transition has started.
In the meantime, we need to focus on how to support Lebanon and Lebanese communities. The European Union has been the leading donor in the international response. Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, the European Union has allocated more than €1 billion to Lebanon alone – almost 2 billion with the contributions of EU Member States.
At the London Conference in February 2016, the European Union announced our willingness to assist even more: we pledged an extra €1 billion for Lebanon and Jordan for the years 2016-2017, specifically aimed at assisting these two countries handling the consequences of the spill-over of the Syrian conflict, with focus on alleviating the pressure on’ infrastructure and creating economic growth. At the same conference, together with the Government of Lebanon, we agreed to launch joint actions to strengthen self-resilience of refugees. Fulfilling them will help to protect refugees and to keep Lebanon stable.
The main objective of our support is the stability of Lebanon: to enable Lebanon to come out of the crisis stronger and to make sure that as long as the refugees are here, they have decent conditions. But we also think about the Lebanese communities generously hosting refugees.
Many regions all over Lebanon have experienced a huge pressure on their infrastructure in the past four years – whether we talk about schools, hospitals, water lines or waste management.
We have worked to alleviate this pressure. To name just a few examples, our support has enabled 240,000 children – Syrians and Lebanese – to go to school, provided 750,000 people with clean drinking water and improved the access of 550,000 patients to healthcare medication and vaccines.
The European Union and its Member States work exclusively on the assumption that the stay of the refugees in Lebanon is temporary. No one argues that refugees should be integrated or naturalised in Lebanon. That is why our support is aimed at strengthening the resilience of the country to respond to the current situation better, but also to make sure that the improvements and investments we make – whether in renovating schools, building water towers or establishing waste management plants – will continue benefitting Lebanon after the refugees return to their country.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The current migration and refugee crisis is unprecedented and global in its nature. This is why the response to it has to be global.
The arrival of thousands or millions of refugees and migrants is a challenge for all governments and we have to work together to share the burden.
This is why we look forward to the two important events in New York next week, where the UN’s General Assembly will discuss these challenges and how we get even better in assisting refugees and migrants as well as the countries hosting them.
To find a response to this challenge is not easy – we all know that. It may be – together with our joint fight against terrorism – the biggest challenge of our generation.
The European Union and Lebanon are close partners, and we are in strengthening our partnership even further. With the close involvement of the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, we have just negotiated a new partnership defining long-term joint priorities for our cooperation, as well as a major plan – the Compact – for how we can work together as partners even better to handle the challenges caused by the refugees’ temporary stay here in Lebanon.
We are committed to Lebanon’s stability, security, independence and sovereignty. Lebanon’s security is crucial for Europe’s security and the example of Lebanon as the one place in this region where multi-confessionalism and open-mindedness still thrive is something we cherish. And we want to work closely with you to make sure that this remains the case.
The crisis in Syria has developed into a conflict with more far-reaching consequences than anyone would have ever imagined. Hopefully, with last week’s developments, we are one step closer to a political settlement that will create the conditions for the safe return of the refugees to their country and a positive development in this region.