Bassil Freezes UNHCR Residency Permits over Refugee Spat
Caretaker Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil on Friday ordered a freeze on the renewal of residency permits for the staff of the United Nations refugee agency, saying it is not encouraging Syrian refugees to return home.
Bassil said in a statement from his office that UNHCR is scaring Syrian refugees in Lebanon from returning by asking them about compulsory military service, security conditions and whether they have a place to live.
"Bassil asked for the study of other progressive measures... in the case that the UNHCR is determined to pursue the same policy," the statement said.
The statement said the measure by the ministry came after direct warnings by the ministry to UNHCR representative in Lebanon Mireille Girard who was summoned twice recently.
UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said the agency has so far not been formally informed about the decision and refused to comment until officially authorized.
Bassil's statement came amid reports that some 3,000 Syrians are getting ready to head back home later this month.
The minister late Thursday warned that Lebanon would start taking measures against the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees over allegations the agency was preventing Syrian refugees from returning home.
"We sent a mission that verified that the UNHCR is intimidating the displaced who wish to return voluntarily," he tweeted.
A UNHCR spokesperson responded by denying that the agency's staff were discouraging refugees from considering a return.
"We do not discourage or oppose returns taking place based on an individual decision," William Spindler told reporters.
"But in our view, conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for an assisted return, although the situation is changing and we are following closely," he said.
Lebanon has seen its water, electricity and waste removal infrastructure strained by the influx of Syrian refugees.
But international non-governmental organizations also say their presence has helped stimulate the economy.
In April, the UNHCR suggested that the government-organized return of 500 refugees was premature, explaining that it was not involved due to the prevailing humanitarian and security situation in Syria.
The world body's position infuriated Bassil, who warned Lebanon could "re-evaluate" the U.N. agency's work.
Lebanon is expected to soon have a new government after last month's parliamentary elections.
Syrian refugees are a recurring topic in Lebanon's political debate, but Bassil has taken a hard line and been the only leading politician directly attacking the U.N.
Syria's regime has retaken more than half of the country since Russia intervened in 2015 on its behalf.
The war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the violent repression of anti-government protests.