Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister has accused the UN refugee agency of discouraging Syrian refugees from returning to their war-torn country as a public spat between the Lebanese government and the agency deepened on Wednesday.
“It’s time to tell them enough. That’s it,” Gibran Bassil said to reporters during a visit to the eastern town of Arsal near the border with Syria, days after he ordered a freeze on the renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff.
Bassil was unhappy with the information the agency gives refugees who are planning to return to Syria, which he says include an emphasis on the lack of security guarantees, possible destruction of homes and compulsory military service back home, as well as telling them the agency was not able to provide support in some parts of Syria.
“Actually, they are telling them not to go back,” Bassil said.
The UN is angered by Bassil’s accusations and Lebanon’s decision to freeze renewal of residency permits for staff.
“This directly impacts UNHCR’s ability to effectively carry out critical protection and solutions work in Lebanon. UNHCR hopes the decision of the foreign ministry will be reversed without delay,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.
Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees in the world – more than 1.5 million, constituting about a quarter of the country’s population, putting a huge strain on the economy.
Authorities in Lebanon have long complained about the burden the country carries, with officials saying it costs the country about $8bn a year.
Some groups calling for the refugees’ return made major gains in last month’s parliamentary elections as sentiments against the refugees are on the rise.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies