BEIRUT: Lebanon's Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Friday the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of hampering the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to areas deemed safe, calling it "an effort to nationalize refugees through fear and intimidation."
The pushback comes against the backdrop of a UNHCR statement that cast doubt on whether the refugees left with their own accord and if the necessary security conditions were put in place.
"UNHCR teams on the ground have been discussing with concerned refugees and authorities to assess the intentions of refugees and the conditions in which these returns would take place. UNHCR is not involved in the organization of these returns or other returns at this point, considering the prevailing humanitarian and security situation in Syria," a statement released by the agency Wednesday read.
Earlier on Friday, Lebanon's Director of Political and Consular Affairs Ghadi Khoury summoned UNHCR representative Mireille Girard to discuss "the agency's statement which is at odds with Lebanon's principles" adding that "the country's actions are in line with international laws and regulations that pertain to human rights."
According to the statement, Khoury stressed on the notion that such comments emanating from the agency instill fear and confusion in the minds of refugees who wish to depart Lebanon voluntarily.
"The return of these Syrian refugees was a dignified one and to areas where security and stability have been restored."
A representative from the UNHCR could not be immediately reached for a comment.
This picture, taken on April 18, shows family members bidding farewell to their loved ones heading back to Syria (Annahar Photo)
Lebanon is hosting some 1.5 million refugees — accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s population, which has taken its toll on the country economy and ailing infrastructure.
Lebanese leaders have continuously called for the safe return of refugees when the time is right, in line with international norms of human rights.
"Our government is determined to pave the way for Syrian and Palestinian refugees to return home," said Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in March.
More than a dozen buses carrying Syrian refugees left Wednesday the disputed area of Shebaa in Lebanon's southeast toward Syria, under the watchful eye of Lebanon's General Security and army.
The buses carried 472 refugees, including men, women, and children who voluntarily elected to return to their home country after years of living in dire conditions in makeshift homes.
Syria has been ravaged by a bloody civil war for almost a decade, as President Bashar Assad's forces are locked in a fierce battle against different rebel factions, including the Islamic State.
Yet the scale appears to have been tipped in his favor after Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah threw their weight behind him.
After weeks of deadly clashes, Assad's forces secured last week the last remaining stronghold of Ghouta close to the capital, a significant move after the government recaptured eastern Aleppo in 2016.
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