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The New Arab

Lebanon to allow expats to come home despite coronavirus lockdown

Around 20,000 Lebanese citizens could want to return home [AFP]

Date of publication: 31 March, 2020

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Lebanese citizens abroad who wants to return home amid the coronavirus pandemic will be allowed on flights from Sunday onwards.
Lebanon agreed on Tuesday to allow citizens abroad to return home despite a strict coronavirus lockdown after criticism of its expat policy.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri threatened to withdraw support for the cabinet, formed just two months ago amid political upheaval, if it did not act to bring home Lebanese stranded abroad after the country cancelled flights, Reuters reported.

Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport was closed to flights two weeks ago as part of strict measures designed to limit transmission of the novel coronavirus. The government has imposed a lockdown and overnight curfew until April 12 amid the outbreak that has claimed 12 lives.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised to ensure the safe return of citizens abroad, his office said on Tuesday after a cabinet meeting.

"We cannot bear any faltering step, and none of the political forces can bear having on its conscience the spread of the [coronavirus] and the collapse of the health system," Diab said.

Returns of expatriates will start on Sunday, Informational Minister Manal Abdel Samad said.

All passengers will be screened before they board flights to Lebanon but the cabinet may make changes to the procedure for returns later this week, she added.

The move is also backed by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah militant group, and Christian politician Samir Geagea.

Most of Lebanon's prominent politicians and main political factions have important ties to the country's large diaspora communities from which they draw support.

Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti said earlier on Tuesday that, according to an initial tally from embassies, some 20,000 could want to return home.

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the financial struggles of Lebanese living abroad.

Lebanon was already in economic crisis when mass protests erupted in October last year, prompting the resignation of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and pushing the country deeper into financial turmoil.

Banks have imposed increasingly strict limits on withdrawals from ATMs and blocked transfers abroad.

On Sunday, the country's banking association said lenders were "committed to transferring the appropriate sums for Lebanese students living abroad".

But all dollar withdrawals are to be halted until the Beirut airport is re-opened, a member of the association told AFP on Monday.

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