Ten­sions ease be­tween Le­banon and UNHCR

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Joseph Haboush

BEIRUT: The week­long stand­off be­tween some Le­banese of­fi­cials and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ap­peared to have been eased Thurs­day as both sides met – some in Geneva and oth­ers in Beirut.

Hav­ing amped up his rhetoric and ac­tions against the United Na­tions refugee agency in re­cent weeks over the re­turn of Syr­ian refugees to their home­land, care­taker For­eign Min­is­ter Ge­bran Bas­sil trav­eled to the UNHCR head­quar­ters in Geneva Thurs­day “to send a di­rect mes­sage to the com­mis­sioner-gen­eral.”

Af­ter a meet­ing with UNHCR Com­mis­sioner Filippo Grandi, Bas­sil said the re­sponse re­ceived over the is­sues he’d raised ap­peared to be in “good faith,” but he would wait for prac­ti­cal mea­sures and poli­cies to be im­ple­mented in Le­banon.

Bas­sil said he was pre­pared to lift the ini­tial mea­sures levied against UNHCR if he saw a change in their pol­icy, but was also pre­pared to es­ca­late ac­tions if there was no change.

Last week, Bas­sil or­dered a freeze on the re­newal and is­suance of res­i­dency per­mits for the UNHCR staff in Le­banon, claim­ing they were scar­ing refugees from re­turn­ing by ask­ing ques­tions about their prepa­ra­tion for life back in Syria.

Bas­sil said he did not ask Grandi to en­cour­age refugees to re­turn.

“We ex­plained to him the mea­sures taken by the UNHCR on the ground scare refugees from re­turn­ing and [Grandi] promised us that it will be looked into ,” Bas­sil told re­porters.

“He [Grandi] in­formed us that this ap­proach would be un­ac­cept­able and this was a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment,” Bas­sil added.

But Bas­sil stopped short of a con­fronta­tion. “We are not look­ing for prob­lems with the UNHCR or the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity,” he said.

The for­eign min­is­ter re­it­er­ated

pre­vi­ous state­ments that Le­banon can no longer cope with the bur­den of the refugee cri­sis, say­ing the econ­omy could col­lapse un­der the pres­sure of the in­flux of at least 1 mil­lion refugees. “The UNHCR’s pol­icy stated on its web­site is to pre­vent early re­turn, and this is un­ac­cept­able.”

Bas­sil grouped refugees in Le­banon into three cat­e­gories. “Eco­nomic refugees” were those he claimed go to and from Syria while ben­e­fit­ting from aid pro­vided by the UNHCR. Ac­cord­ing to Bas­sil, Grandi agreed this group should not re­ceive cer­tain aid from the U.N. agency. The sec­ond group of refugees are those who want to re­turn to Syria and have lands and homes to go back to as well as the ap­proval of the Syr­ian au­thor­i­ties.

This is in con­trast to the fi­nal group, who want to re­turn to Syria but have lost their homes. “I asked why they could not con­tinue to re­ceive UNHCR as­sis­tance in­side Syria and re­quested that this group of refugees not be threat­ened with hav­ing aid cut off if they re­turn,” Bas­sil said.

Bas­sil also down­played internal po­lit­i­cal dis­putes re­port­edly roiled by the re­cent con­tro­versy. He “ad­vised” Grandi not to bet on a dis­pute de­vel­op­ing be­tween Le­banese par­ties “be­cause every­one sup­ports the re­turn of the refugees to Syria.” The min­is­ter also called for a new pol­icy in which the preven­tion of early re­turn is re­placed by en­cour­ag­ing a safe and dig­ni­fied re­turn, in an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to cur­rent UNHCR pol­icy.

Prior to his meet­ing with Grandi, Bas­sil met with the U.N. en­voy to Syria Staffan de Mis­tura and asked for help in ac­cel­er­at­ing a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the neigh­bor­ing con­flict and for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the Syr­ian peo­ples.

In Beirut, Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun met with mem­bers of the In­ter­na­tional Sup­port Group for Le­banon at Baabda Palace where the am­bas­sadors as­sured him Syr­ian refugees would not re­main per­ma­nently in­side the coun­try.

“We agreed on the need to im­prove the part­ner­ships be­tween Le­banon and its in­ter­na­tional part­ners in a con­struc­tive and pro­duc­tive man­ner to deal with this is­sue,” Act­ing U.N. Spe­cial Co­or­di­na­tor for Le­banon Pernille Kardel said.

EU Am­bas­sador to Le­banon Christina Lassen tweeted: “Am­bas­sadors of the In­ter­na­tional Sup­port Group for #Le­banon had a good & con­struc­tive meet­ing to­day w/ Pres­i­dent Aoun dis­cussing pri­or­i­ties for the fu­ture govt.”

While me­dia out­lets quoted Ger­man Am­bas­sador to Le­banon Martin Huth say­ing the “[in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity] is dis­mayed by re­peated false ac­cu­sa­tions that [it] is work­ing to­wards a set­tle­ment of refugees in Le­banon,” Huth told The Daily Star this was taken out of con­text.

“I fully agree that the meet­ing with the pres­i­dent was ex­tremely help­ful and con­struc­tive. I did not try to put oil on the fire,” he said.

Huth re­it­er­ated the refugees’ fu­tures are in Syria and set­tling them per­ma­nently in Le­banon “would dis­rupt the del­i­cate de­mo­graphic and so­cial bal­ance of Le­banon, and would rep­re­sent an un­ac­cept­able eco­nomic bur­den on Le­banon.” How­ever, he added “con­di­tions in that coun­try [Syria], in our view, do not al­low for a gen­eral and com­pre­hen­sive re­turn of refugees at this time.”

Aoun stressed to the ISG that Syr­i­ans could re­turn “in stages to ar­eas that have be­come safe and sta­ble in­side Syria,” adding the safe zones in Syria are five times the size of Le­banon.

At the same time, Hezbol­lah’s Loy­alty to the Re­sis­tance bloc held its weekly meet­ing, an­nounc­ing it’s ready to [help] to speed up the re­turn of refugees to Syria. “The vol­un­tary and safe re­turn of Syr­ian refugees to their home­land needs a re­spon­si­ble ap­proach and we have started to sense promis­ing signs,” a state­ment from the bloc read.

Also in Beirut, po­lit­i­cal sources told The Daily Star Speaker Nabih Berri voiced fear over the de­lay in a new Cab­i­net for­ma­tion. Rifts have be­gun to ap­pear be­tween sides due to ex­ter­nal and do­mes­tic fac­tors. A source close to the speaker said if the Cab­i­net isn’t formed be­fore the end of June, then it could take a very long time.

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