BEIRUT: Lebanon's caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil threatened to increase pressure on the U.N. refugee agency if it does not change its policies, which he says discourage Syrian refugees from returning to their country.
Bassil made his comments in Geneva following a meeting with Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, days after the Lebanese official ordered a freeze on the renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff in response to the agency "systemic campaign to dissuade refugees from returning home."
"We explained to Grandi what has been taking place on the ground, which has stoked the fears of refugees," Bassil said.
The Foreign Minister asked the Commissioner for cooperation in facilitating the return of refugees willing to return home, which he classified into three categories.
"There are those who go back and forth from Syria for economic reasons and benefit from their refugee status by receiving aid which they aren't supposed to receive," Bassil explained. Then there are those "who have all the financial capabilities to return, "including housing and approval from the Syrian government," he said, maintaining that his Ministry and the UNHCR will work closely to facilitate their return.
Touching on refugees who have lost all their belongings as well as their properties as a result of the almost decade-long conflict, Bassil called for the UNHCR to include "them in the assistance program within Syria instead of threatening of cutting aid if they elect to return."
Bassil said he is ready to lift the measures "if I see tangible steps," adding that he is also ready to take further steps if things continue as they are.
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.
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," a point reiterated by Bassil during his meeting in Geneva. With AP
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