Min­is­ter’s com­ments come at co­or­di­nated tour of border town of Ar­sal

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Fin­bar An­der­son

AR­SAL, Le­banon: Care­taker For­eign Min­is­ter Ge­bran Bas­sil dou­bled down on his re­cent com­bat­ive rhetoric to­ward the U.N. refugee agency Wed­nes­day, ex­tend­ing his at­tacks to the wider in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Bas­sil, speak­ing from a cave in which 10 Le­banese sol­diers cap­tured by Daesh (ISIS) in 2014 were held, said he was think­ing “of the con­spir­acy that threat­ened our ex­is­tence … I am think­ing of all those re­spon­si­ble in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity who com­mit­ted such a crime against Le­banon and Syria.” This con­spir­acy, he said, came about through “poli­cies drawn to de­stroy this re­gion, to fur­ther the in­ter­ests of Is­rael and pow­ers who refuse to have this di­ver­sity here.”

The min­is­ter’s com­ments came dur­ing a co­or­di­nated tour of the border town of Ar­sal which ap­peared aimed at demon­strat­ing the re­newed safety of the Le­banon-Syria border, the sac­ri­fices made by Le­banon’s sol­diers to bring about such safety and the will­ing­ness of refugees to re­turn to their homes in Syria.

Bas­sil claimed that Le­banese of all sects and from all over the coun­try wanted the re­turn of Syr­ian refugees, while sim­i­larly the Syr­ian na­tion­als “from ev­ery­where and from all sects want this.”

Bas­sil also of­fered a warn­ing to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. Dur­ing a news con­fer­ence at the be­gin­ning of the tour he pre­sented a plas­tic en­ve­lope: “This is what I re­ceived now,” he said. “A let­ter from one of [the Syr­ian com­mu­nity’s] rep­re­sen­ta­tives say­ing, ‘Ei­ther al­low us to go back to Syria or work for us to be repa­tri­ated in Europe.’”

The com­ments come in the wake of a marked es­ca­la­tion in ten­sions be­tween the For­eign Min­istry and the UNHCR, which cul­mi­nated last Fri­day with Bas­sil or­der­ing a freeze on the re­newal of UNHCR staff res­i­dency per­mits af­ter claim­ing the agency had been scar­ing refugees from re­turn­ing to Syria.

The For­eign Min­istry’s ac­tions were met with strong con­dem­na­tion, not least from other mem­bers of Le­banon’s care­taker gov­ern­ment. Bas­sil sought to play down con­flicts over the is­sue. “Nei­ther Prime Min­is­ter [des­ig­nate Saad] Hariri nor any other of­fi­cial want prob­lems with the U.N. … But it is time to say enough,” he said. “Le­banon’s in­ter­ests are at stake and are more im­por­tant than other mat­ters.”

“[The UNHCR’s] pol­icy is to for­bid the re­turn, the Le­banese pol­icy is to en­cour­age the re­turn,” Bas­sil said dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s tour. He in­sisted he was not “an­gry” at the agency, rather “sur­prised that they are not re­spect­ing our pol­icy and not abid­ing by our will and sovereignty.”

The UNHCR re­sponded to Bas­sil’s al­le­ga­tions in a state­ment to The Daily Star late Wed­nes­day, say­ing that it “would not try to dis­cour­age the refugees from re­turn­ing when they chose to do so.”

The state­ment said the UNHCR “re­spects and has al­ways re­spected the sovereignty of Le­banon,” adding that it had made clear that it re­spected Le­banese gov­ern­ment pol­icy, which states that the in­te­gra­tion of refugees into the Le­banese com­mu­nity is not an op­tion. “The re­turn of the refugees is the ul­ti­mate pre­ferred so­lu­tion for the refugee cri­sis,” the state­ment read.

Nev­er­the­less the agency de­fended the ques­tions it had been ask­ing of refugees, say­ing it “has a duty to make sure that refugees are well in­formed as they make these im­por­tant de­ci­sions.”

The re­ac­tion of the refugee com­mu­nity in Ar­sal to Bas­sil’s visit was mixed. Some were wait­ing for the min­is­ter’s con­voy to ar­rive dur­ing a visit to one of the town’s refugee camps and were more than happy to back pro­pos­als to fa­cil­i­tate a re­turn.

“We want to go back to our coun­try,” one per­son told Bas­sil out­side a tent whose care­fully tended veg­etable gar­den demon­strated the length of time its oc­cu­pants had been liv­ing there.

“We are young, if we don’t go back who will re­build? We want to go back to our na­tion – our only na­tion. Syria is our mother.” One el­derly Syr­ian woman threw flow­ers over the min­is­ter’s car as he left.

An­other refugee, who said his name was Mo­ham­mad and his home­town Al-Qu­sair, said he wanted to re­turn. “Why wouldn’t some­one go back to their home?” he asked. How­ever, he was wor­ried about the level of safety in Syria and in­sisted he wanted the in­volve­ment of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. “If there are United Na­tions guar­an­tees we will re­turn. If there aren’t, we won’t re­turn,” he said.

Ham­mam al-Amir, a refugee from Flita on the other side of the Syr­ian border, was more skep­ti­cal, say­ing he es­ti­mated only 150 of a town of 10,000 refugees would be will­ing to re­turn at this stage. He noted that many were re­turn­ing be­cause of a re­cent law passed by the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, known as Law 10, which gives the gov­ern­ment the right to ex­pro­pri­ate the prop­erty of Syr­ian na­tion­als un­less they re­turn to claim it.

This was driv­ing older Syr­ian na­tion­als back to the coun­try, he said, while many of the younger gen­er­a­tion were un­will­ing to re­turn for fear of be­ing called up to mil­i­tary ser­vice.

He too called for the in­volve­ment of in­ter­na­tional agen­cies. “The re­turn is wrong,” he said. “There is no safety and it is un­se­cured. It should be se­cured by the United Na­tions.”

One el­derly Syr­ian woman threw flow­ers over the min­is­ter’s car as he left.

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