Lebanese Minister blocks UN refugee staff’s Visa renewal

Lebanon accused the United Nations Refugee Agency of intimidating refugees to prevent them voluntarily returning to Syria.
Saturday 09/06/2018
Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees speaks during a press conference in Beirut, on March 9. (AP)
Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees speaks during a press conference in Beirut, on March 9. (AP)

TUNIS - Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil placed a freeze on visa renewal requests from UN refugee agency staff members, accusing the agency of intimidating refugees to prevent them from voluntarily returning to Syria.

Since the displacement of Syrian refugees began in 2011, more than 1 million moved into Lebanon, a figure about one-quarter of the country’s population. The influx created strains on waste removal, water and electricity infrastructure, which led to Bassil warning the UN that Lebanon may need to “re-evaluate” the agency’s work.

Lebanon accused the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of discouraging the Syrian refugees’ return by asking whether they had a place to live in Syria, about compulsory military service that may be owed and the security conditions in their home area.

Bassil is the only leading politician to directly attack the United Nations, as well as question what measures will be taken against the UNHCR “if it insists on following the same policy.”

Bassil earlier criticised the agency, posting on Twitter: “We sent a mission that verified that the UNHCR is intimidating the displaced who wish to return voluntarily.” The tweet came as reports by local Lebanese officials suggesting approximately 3,000 Syrians were preparing to return to Syria at the end of the month.

Bassil’s accusation was denied by UNHCR spokesman William Spindler who said refugees were not being dissuaded from considering a return. “We do not discourage or oppose returns taking place based on an individual decision but, in our view, conditions in Syria are not yet conductive for an assisted return, although the situation is changed and we are following closely,” he said.

Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement has stated it and the Shia group Hezbollah are “
“on the same wavelength regarding foreign issues” and that the alliance “is bound to last.”

Hezbollah has been involved in the Syrian conflict since 2013, providing support for the Assad regime throughout.

Hezbollah has been wanting Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon.

In a 2015 deal brokered by the group, the government organised the return of 500 refugees to Syria. This was regarded as premature by the UNHCR, which said it was not involved in the deal due to the security and humanitarian situation of Syria.

Relations between the Lebanese and Syrian refugees have become tense and the situation has increasingly been part of the political debate in Lebanon.