WED 19 - 6 - 2019
Jun 13, 2018
The Daily Star
UNHCR dispute may spill over into Lebanon Cabinet
Sabine Darrous| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: In proceeding with action against the United Nations refugee agency, caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has widened a dispute with the premier-designate that is likely to drag out into Cabinet negotiations, sources close to Saad Hariri have said. Sources said the issue would likely remain a focus of debate in the new government and comprise a large part of discussions and negotiations when a new Cabinet is formed and prepares its ministerial statement.
The Foreign Ministry officially informed the UNHCR Monday of Bassil’s decision to halt the renewal of residency permits for its staff in Lebanon, accusing the agency of scaring Syrian refugees from going home.
The ministry is set on going forward with the move despite widespread criticism, including from the premier-designate, and despite Bassil’s consultations with Hariri last week and agreeing to roll back actions against the agency.
The Foreign Ministry’s Director of Political and Consular Affairs Ghadi Khoury confirmed that there would be no going back on the measures. He warned that additional steps would be taken if the agency does not change how it operates and does not offer clarification on questions raised by the ministry.
“This is the first time the Foreign Ministry dares to take such serious measures in Lebanon’s history,” Khoury told The Daily Star.
“[The UNHCR] cannot work against the policy of the government and expect us to remain silent.”
He also said the ministry had “evidence” UNHCR staff were threatening and scaring refugees from returning to their homeland.
Sources close to Hariri said Bassil was trying to “gain popularity and kicking up a fuss” to deflect attention from the controversial naturalization decree, published last week, that gives Lebanese citizenship to more than 400 people.
“Lebanon cannot tolerate a hostile approach with the U.N. as it will have negative repercussions on Lebanon. This is neither the right time nor the right way to deal with the international community,” one source told The Daily Star. “Bassil is attempting to gain wide acclaim by projecting himself as a hero who wants to relieve Lebanon from the burden of the refugees and projecting other parties as in favor of the settlement of Syrians in Lebanon.”
Khoury said the ministry does not wish to make trouble or strain its relationship with the U.N. agency, but expects it to cooperate with the ministry and work in parallel with the Lebanese government’s policy and will to ensure the return of refugees to their country. He insisted Bassil’s measures were “legal and righteous,” despite the fact that the government is in caretaker mode.
Khoury also claimed that the measures were being criticized as Bassil was the “first minister to dare and apply his prerogatives.”
A meeting for U.N. representatives as well as U.S. and EU ambassadors was held Monday to support the UNHCR and its work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. After the meeting, the U.S., British, French and Norwegian ambassadors all tweeted in support of the UNHCR.
U.K. Ambassador Hugo Shorter said the UNHCR has “international community backing ... as it fulfills its mandate on the voluntary return of refugees to Syria. Treatment of returnees and access by U.N. in Syria is key to successful returns.”
Khoury expressed his surprise at the foreign envoys’ tweets, saying they insulted the Lebanese people. “We are being treated as a state that has no sovereignty over its territories or decisions,” he said. “Nobody even came to consult us or ask us about our findings and measures.”
Last week, the Foreign Ministry gave the UNHCR a two-week deadline to develop a strategy to facilitate the return of refugees to areas in Syria that the ministry deemed safe.
It also summoned UNHCR representative in Lebanon Mireille Girard and warned her that Beirut does not approve of the agency’s policy.
Meanwhile, Arsal Mayor Bassil Hujeiri told The Daily Star that preparations for the departure of around 3,600 Syrian refugees to safe areas in the country are underway in coordination with General Security and Syrian security officials.
Hujeiri said he expected the first group to start returning after Eid al-Fitr, set to fall over the weekend, after the municipality registered the names of those wishing to return and handed them to the General Security.
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