Lebanon foreign minister escalates refugee row with U.N. agency
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister escalated his row with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR on Wednesday, accusing it at a news conference of working to stop refugees from returning to Syria.
UNHCR has denied similar accusations, saying it supports the return of refugees when it is safe for them to go back to Syria and helps those who choose to return with their documentation. It had no immediate reaction to the latest accusa- tion. “Their policy is to forbid the return,” Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said. “The Lebanese policy is to encourage the return. Forbid, encourage. Stop, facilitate. That’s it,” Bassil said during the news conference in the town of Arsal, where he spoke alongside Syrian refugees. The U.N. has registered about a million refugees in Lebanon - nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population. The Lebanese government, which puts the figure at 1.5 million, says it wants them to start going back to territory where fighting is over. Bassil said on Wednesday the burden of hosting Syrian refugees seven years into the conflict that drove them to flee had grown “unbearable”, blaming the crisis for the collapse of the economy and emigration of Lebanese citizens.