Tensions ease between Lebanon and UNHCR
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.