BEIRUT: Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil instructed Friday the General Directorate for Emigrants to suspend "the residency application process for the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) until further notice," in line with the measures he vowed to take against the agency a day earlier.
The relationship between Bassil and the UN Refugee Agency has deteriorated over the past months, with the Foreign Minister lashing out in May at "the international campaign to integrate Syrian refugees in Lebanon," spearheaded by the UNHCR.
In a statement released by his Ministry, this first wave of retaliatory measures came in response to "a systemic attempt by the UNHCR to intimidate refugees and dissuade them from returning home."
According to the statement, a delegation sent by Bassil to the region of Arsal, Baalbek - which hosts a large number of displaced Syrians - found that the "UNHCR is deliberately asking refugees questions that stoke their fears in terms of military service, security, their housing condition, as well as the possibility of cutting off aid and their return without international sponsorship."
Bassil has repeatedly accused the UNHCR of intimidating refugees who wish to return to their homeland voluntarily by labelling the situation in Syria unsafe.
Lebanon's political parties across the board have been calling for the return of those displaced to areas deemed "safe," with President Michel Aoun maintaining that "they must return irrespective of a resolution to the conflict."
With over 1.5 million refugees scattered across its territory, Lebanon has been reeling under the burden of this crisis that broke out since the war began in 2011.
“Our procedures against UNHCR begin tomorrow, and they will escalate to the maximum extent that sovereign Lebanon can achieve toward an organization which acts against (Lebanon’s) policy of preventing naturalization and returning the displaced to their homeland,” Bassil said in a series of tweets published Thursday.
Last week, the head of Lebanon’s General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim announced that communications with Syrian authorities to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees were ongoing, a day after Aoun reiterated to U.S officials that their return should not be tied to a broader resolution to the conflict.
“Today we sent a mission which verified that UNHCR is intimidating the displaced people who wish to return voluntarily,” Bassil said.
“Our affection for (the displaced Syrians) says that the time has come for returns since conditions are safe,” he said, adding that the international community is trying to stop this from happening.
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