Bassil freezes UNHCR staff residency permits
Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil Friday ordered a freeze on the renewal of UNHCR staff residency permits until further notice, according to a statement from his ministry.
The statement said a delegation from the ministry went to Arsal and spoke with Syrian refugees, who voiced their willingness to return to their homeland. It claimed that UNHCR had scared refugees away from returning through a series of warnings and threats.
“[The refugees] were scared to return because of questions being asked by the UNHCR ... [and told] that they would be obliged to join the military, [citing] the [poor] security situation,” the statement read. “[UNHCR threatened to] cut off aid to them and [said] that their return was not under international support.”
“This measure comes after multiple warnings from the ministry issued directly to UNHCR Representative in Beirut Mireille Girard and she was summoned twice to the ministry to warn her about the policies,” the statement added.
The U.N. refugee agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to Friday’s statement, the UNHCR has not changed its alleged “policy of intimidation,” despite Bassil informing the U.N. secretary-general of his disapproval.
“Bassil has asked for studies on further measures that could be taken towards the UNHCR, which are numerous, if it insists on adopting the same policy,” the statement read.
An interview published Friday quoted Bassil as lashing out at the U.N. refugee agency for “clearly defying the Lebanese government’s policy” on Syrian refugees.
“There is an international will to keep [Syrian refugees] in Lebanon and we are determined to break [this will],” Bassil told Al-Akhbar.
"As of Friday, the first steps will be taken against the UNHCR," Bassil said during a speech at an iftar Thursday, though he did not specify what those steps would be.
Despite media reports that Girard could be expelled from Lebanon, a source from the Foreign Ministry denied such an approach.
In response to Bassil’s speech, MP Marwan Hamadeh fired back, saying, “This minister is acting as if the state launched an elimination war against international institutions, without taking into account the local repercussions on Lebanon’s [reputation].”
He added, “[It is] unacceptable for one caretaker minister to determine the policy that concerns the domestic scene.”
Lebanon Tuesday gave the UNHCR a fortnight to respond to a request to develop a strategy for facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to “safe zones” in their homeland. The Foreign Ministry’s political affairs director, Ghady al-Khoury, met with Girard to voice Lebanon’s reservations over the UNHCR policy on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, a statement from the ministry read.
After the meeting, a UNHCR source told The Daily Star that the body was in talks with the Lebanese government over its role in protecting refugees. “Solutions include resettlement from Lebanon to third countries and repatriation in line with international standards,” the source said.