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Lebanon’s dispute with UN grows over Syria refugee policy

Updated June 14, 2018

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A SYRIAN refugee girl stands outside a tent at a refugee camp in Zahrani town, Lebanon, on Wednesday.—Reuters
A SYRIAN refugee girl stands outside a tent at a refugee camp in Zahrani town, Lebanon, on Wednesday.—Reuters

ARSAL: A public spat between the Lebanese government and the UN refugee agency deepened on Wednesday as Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister kept up his criticism, accusing the agency of discouraging Syrian refugees from returning home.

“It’s time to tell them enough. That’s it,” Gibran Bassil said, adding that Lebanon’s economy is collapsing and that no other country in the world has been as accommodating and offered as much concessions.

Lebanon is home to more than a million Syrian refugees, or about a quarter of the country’s population, putting a huge strain on the economy.

The hospitality shown by the tiny, politically and economically fragile country has won praise from international leaders, UN officials and donor countries. But sentiments against refugees have been increasing amid political divisions and an economic crunch, especially after groups calling for their return made major gains in last month’s parliamentary elections.

Bassil spoke to reporters during a visit to the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal near the border with Syria, days after he ordered a freeze on the renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff.

He has accused the agency of discouraging the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon by emphasising in their questions to refugees the lack of security guarantees and compulsory military service back home, and telling them the agency would halt assistance in the event of their return. “Actually, they are telling them not to go back,” he said, before touring refugee settlements in Arsal and chatting with displaced people.

Many regions in war-torn Syria have stabilised in the past two years as the Syrian government, backed by its allies Russia and Iran, recaptured areas previously held by rebels and Islamic militants. But many refugees fear they would be harassed or detained if they return, and many have lost their homes and have nothing to return to.

In New York, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said UNHCR is “very concerned”. “This directly impacts UNHCR’s ability to effectively carry out critical protection and solutions work in Lebanon. UNHCR hopes the decision of the Foreign Ministry will be reversed without delay,” he told reporters on Wednesday. He added that the agency respects the rights of refugees to decide freely on returning home. The UN “does not discourage returns that are based on individual, free and informed decisions”, he added.

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2018