Lebanon FM Orders Visa Block for UNHRC Amid Syria Refugee Row
June 8, 2018
Lebanon's Foreign Ministry has ordered to suspend residency applications for the staff of the UN refugee agency accusing the organization of discouraging Syrian refugees in Lebanon from returning their country.
"Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Gebran Bassil issued instructions... to stop the requests for residency presented to the ministry and (those already submitted) for the UNHCR in Lebanon until further notice," a statement by the ministry said on Friday.
"Bassil asked for the study of other progressive measures... in the case that the UNHCR is determined to pursue the same policy," the statement added.
On Thursday, Bassil said the UNHCR has discouraged refugees in the Lebanese border town of Arsal from returning home by asking them questions about potential situation they may experience in Syria, including the likelihood of military conscription, security issues and poor accommodation.
"We sent a mission that verified that the UNHCR is intimidating the displaced who wish to return voluntarily," the Lebanese foreign minister tweeted.
However, Nadim Mounla, an aide to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said Bassil's decision was "unilateral" and "not representative of the Lebanese government's position."
Mounla predicted Bassil would have to cancel his decision, noting that the foreign minister "did not consult the prime minister nor the other ministers, including those most directly affected by the issue."
The UNHCR also said the foreign ministry has not officially notified the agency of the decision.
A UNHCR spokesman, William Spindler, denied Bassil's accusations, saying,
"We do not discourage or oppose returns taking place based on an individual decision."
"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," Spindler added.
Lisa Abou Khaled, another UNHCR spokesperson, said the agency had not been notified of suspension of residency permits for its foreign staff.
She noted that the majority of the UNHCR's 600 staff in the country are Lebanese, but did not specify any number.
Nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees have been living in Lebanon since 2011, making up a quarter of the country’s population.
Last month, Lebanon's head of the General Security agency Major General Abbas Ibrahim said Lebanese and Syrian officials are working together to facilitate the return of thousands of refugees who want to return to Syria.
The official did not give a timeframe for the return of refugees, but noted that some parts of the plan will take place in the short term.
In April, nearly 500 Syrian refugees returned to Syria from the Shebaa area of southern Lebanon under the supervision of Lebanon's General Security in coordination with Syrian officials.
The UNHCR, however, said it was too early for returns to begin, noting that the agency was not involved in the process due to the prevailing humanitarian and security situation in Syria.
The UNCR's position infuriated Bassil, warning that Lebanon could "re-evaluate" the UN agency's operation in the country.
The UNHCR had announced last December that than 50 percent of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty and are highly vulnerable than ever before.
Lebanon is set to form a new government after the country's parliamentary elections in May.
Many Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, are demanding that the government facilitate the return of the Syrian refugees, arguing that the Syrian government has managed to purge many areas of terrorists and the refugees can now safely return to their homes.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hariri has expressed opposition to any forced eviction of refugees.
A conference co-hosted by the UN and the EU later in April said that conditions for the return of refugees have not been fulfilled yet, noting that voluntary repatriation may not take place in safety and dignity.