Anti-refugee sen­ti­ments in­creas­ing


AR­SAL, Le­banon — A public spat be­tween the Le­banese govern­ment and the UN refugee agency deep­ened Wed­nes­day as Le­banon’s care­taker for­eign min­is­ter kept up his crit­i­cism, ac­cus­ing the agency of dis­cour­ag­ing Syr­ian refugees from re­turn­ing home.

“It’s time to tell them enough. That’s it,” Gi­bran Bas­sil said, adding that Le­banon’s econ­omy is col­laps­ing and that no other coun­try in the world has been as ac­com­mo­dat­ing and of­fered as much con­ces­sions.

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.

The hos­pi­tal­ity shown by the tiny, po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally frag­ile coun­try has won praise from in­ter­na­tional lead­ers, UN of­fi­cials and donor coun­tries. But sen­ti­ments against refugees have been in­creas­ing amid po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions and an eco­nomic crunch, es­pe­cially af­ter groups calling for their re­turn made ma­jor gains in last month’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions.

Bas­sil spoke to re­porters dur­ing a visit to the east­ern Le­banese town of Ar­sal near the border with Syria, days af­ter he or­dered a freeze on the re­newal of res­i­dency per­mits for UNHCR staff.

He has ac­cused the agency of dis­cour­ag­ing the re­turn of Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon by em­pha­siz­ing in their ques­tions to refugees the lack of se­cu­rity guar­an­tees and com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice back home, and telling them the agency would halt as­sis­tance in the event of their re­turn.

“Ac­tu­ally, they are telling them not to go back,” he said, be­fore tour­ing refugee set­tle­ments in Ar­sal and chat­ting with dis­placed peo­ple.

Many re­gions in war-torn Syria have sta­bi­lized in the past two years as the Syr­ian govern­ment, backed by its al­lies Rus­sia and Iran, re­cap­tured ar­eas pre­vi­ously held by rebels and Is­lamic mil­i­tants. But many refugees fear they would be ha­rassed or detained if they re­turn, and many have lost their homes and have noth­ing to re­turn to.

Bas­sil’s de­ci­sion to freeze re­newal of res­i­dency per­mits for UNHCR staff has been crit­i­cized by some politi­cians and diplo­mats lo­cally and has an­gered the agency, which re­jected his ac­cu­sa­tions. In New York, UN spokesman Stephane Du­jar­ric said UNHCR is “very con­cerned.”

“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,” he told re­porters on Wed­nes­day. He added that the agency re­spects the rights of refugees to de­cide freely on re­turn­ing home.

The UN “does not dis­cour­age re­turns that are based on in­di­vid­ual, free and in­formed de­ci­sions,” he added.

A UN official in Beirut, Philippe Laz­zarini, said the UN re­spects refugees’ in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sions to re­turn home and would never dis­cour­age their re­turn.

“It is their right and it would be in­con­ceiv­able for the UN to op­pose a refugee’s de­ci­sion re­gard­ing his or her fu­ture,” he was quoted as say­ing af­ter meet­ing with the Le­banese pre­mier Tues­day evening.

Bas­sil, how­ever, said the agency’s web­site cau­tions against a quick re­turn for dis­placed Syr­i­ans. He said the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Le­banese govern­ment and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is that they want the cri­sis to be drawn out “while we want it to be short. Their pol­icy is to for­bid the re­turn (of refugees), the Le­banese pol­icy is to en­cour­age re­turn,” he said at Wed­nes­day’s press con­fer­ence.

“We do not want prob­lems, but it’s time to tell them enough. That’s it ... Le­banon’s in­ter­ests are at stake.”


A Syr­ian refugee woman throws flow­ers on Le­banese For­eign Min­is­ter Gi­bran Bas­sil, cen­tre dur­ing his visit a

Syr­ian refugee camp, in Ar­sal, near the border with Syria, east Le­banon, on Wed­nes­day.

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