Lebanon freezes UNHCR staff permits over Syria refugees spat

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Lebanon has ordered a freeze on residency applications submitted by staff of the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR), accusing it of discouraging Syrian refugees from returning to their war-torn country.

Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said on Friday the agency hindered the return of refugees by “spreading fear”, adding that he would consider taking further measures against the body.

According to a statement by the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNHCR staff were discouraging Syrians’ return home by “asking specific questions that frighten them” related to the security situation in Syria and their repatriation without international oversight.

“The UNHCR was telling them specifically ‘do not return’ which is not their mandate,” Ghadi al-Khoury, an official at the foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera.

“The mandate of the UNHCR is – at least what they say is – that ‘we want to make sure people know what they are doing’ but what is actually happening is much more than that,” he added.

The agency denied the accusations, saying it is carrying out its global mandate of providing support to refugees and help them re-establish their lives in line with international standards.

“The UNHCR is not deterring returns,” spokesperson Lisa Abu Khaled told Al Jazeera.

“The UNHCR has expressed many times that it respects the Lebanese government’s decision that local integration is not an option.”

‘Lebanese divided’

While Turkey hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees, estimated by the UNHCR at 3.5 million, Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees in the world – more than 1.5 million, which constitutes about a quarter of the country’s population.

Authorities in Lebanon have long complained about the burden the country carries, with officials saying it costs the country about $8bn a year. 

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, said Bassil might be acting in a caretaker capacity but he belongs to the ruling alliance which means that his decision could be a reflection of the state’s future policy.

“Some officials are using the refugee file for political capital. They play on fears about the impact of the prolonged presence of refugees in the country,” Khodr said.

“Those officials belong to the Syrian government camp. They want refugee returns to be coordinated with the authorities in Damascus as a first step toward restoring relations with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.”

Khodr said large scale returns give legitimacy to the Syrian government which wants the international community to provide badly-needed funds for reconstruction in the war-torn country.

The UN, in turn, says it neither encourages nor does it discourage returns but that it will not organise returns while discussions with Damascus continue on safeguards that still need to be put in place.

“Although there is a consensus among all the Lebanese that the Syrian refugee crisis is a huge burden on the Lebanese economy and demographics, still the Lebanese are divided on how this should be dealt with,” Sami Nader, of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told Al Jazeera from Beirut.

“Some in the government want to directly coordinate with the Syrian regime which might be perceived as de facto normalisation.”

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