A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Tuesday that he hopes Lebanon’s foreign minister will reverse a decision to block residency permits for the agency’s employees.
The move last week by foreign minister Gebran Bassil marked an escalation in his attacks on the refugee agency, which he has accused of seeking to persuade Syrian refugees in Lebanon not to return to their country.
"We are very concerned at Friday’s announcement by Foreign Minister Bassil on freezing the issuance of residence permits to international staff of UNHCR in Lebanon," agency spokesman Andrej Mahecic said during a briefing in Geneva. "We hope that the decision of the foreign ministry will be reversed without delay."
Mr Mahecic also said that the agency seeks to assist the Lebanese government and local communities deal with the “tremendous challenge” of hosting refugees.
Nearly 1 million Syrians are registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, but officials say the number of displaced Syrians in the country is as high as 1.5 million.
In Beirut, UNHCR representative Mireille Girard told Reuters that 19 staff members had been affected by the freeze on residency permits and that the measure would reduce the agency's ability to operate.
Mireille said the agency adhered to international standards in working with refugees to ensure they had all the information they needed to return safely and to collect proper documentation that would allow them to return.
"It's important people make an informed decision about the return," she said.
Until now, Lebanon's government has largely maintained an official policy of neutrality on the issue of returns, while insisting that refugees must not stay permanently.
But recently, some Lebanese politicians, including president Michel Aoun, have called for Syrian refugees to return to areas of the country they say are secure.
Many parts of the country, however, remain war zones. The UN on Monday said that more than 920,000 people had been displaced by conflict inside Syria during the first four months of 2018, the highest level in the seven-year conflict.
“Given the overall situation, we do not believe conditions are conducive to returns,” Mr Mahecic said.
A spokeswoman for Lebanon's foreign ministry told The National on Tuesday that the minister had no plans to reverse his decision. Mr Bassil had previously sent a letter to the UNHCR giving a two-week deadline for it to submit a plan to the Lebanese government for facilitating refugee returns to Syria.
On Monday, ambassadors from the US, EU, UK and Australia met with Mireille Girard, UNHCR Representative for Lebanon, to show support for the agency.
"International community backing for #UNHCR as it fulfils its mandate on the voluntary return of refugees to Syria," UK ambassador to Lebanon Hugo Shorter tweeted, sharing a picture of the international officials.
Around 3,000 refugees in northern Lebanon are currently waiting for Lebanon’s government to give them permission to return to Syria, in what would represent the most formal coordination of refugee returns between the two countries to date.
Mr Mahecic also responded to Mr Bassil’s accusations that UNHCR was seeking to stop Syrians from returning to Syria.
"We do not oppose or discourage people returning when they return based on their own decision and based on informed choice," Mr Mahecic said. "We have also in that regard ramped up our assistance inside Syria where we can to be able to support those.”
Last weekend, a committee of the refugees seeking to return from Arsal released a letter following Mr Bassil’s comments. “We deny what is being said… [about UNHCR] pressuring and intimidating or terrifying people who belong to the return campaign. This is absolutely not true. …[UNHCR] strongly affirmed every time we met them that they have neither forbade nor encouraged the Syrians to return to their homeland,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, Ms Girard and Philippe Lazzarini, UN deputy special coordinator for Lebanon, met with prime minister-designate Saad Hariri who affirmed his support for UNHCR’s work.
Close advisers to Mr Hariri have criticised Mr Bassil’s move in recent days showing that the freeze does not represent a unified government position.
“It was an important meeting because they [UNHCR and the UN] are partners in helping us solve the refugee issue,” Mr Hariri said according to a statement from his office. “Also, the ultimate solution concerning refugees, for them and for us, is their return to Syria. This is what we reached today and this is what you will hear from them.”
Mr Lazzarini said praised Mr Hariri’s reaffirmation of the “close partnership” between the international agencies and Lebanon and said that refugee return was always their ultimate aim.
“We have consistently reaffirmed that the return to Syria or the reinstallation in a third country are the only durable solutions,” he said. “In the meantime, we respect refugees' individual decision to return home and would never, never discourage the return from taking place based on their decision. It is their right and it would be inconceivable for the UN to oppose a refugee's decision regarding his or her future.”