Lebanon foreign minister escalates refugee row with UN agency

A Syrian refugee woman stands next to her daughter as she watches the visit of the Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil to their refugee camp, in Arsal, near the border with Syria, east Lebanon, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP)
Updated 13 June 2018
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Lebanon foreign minister escalates refugee row with UN agency

  • Lebanon accuses the UNHCR of working to stop refugees from returning to Syria
  • UNHCR says supports the return of refugees when it is safe

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister escalated his row with the UN refugee agency UNHCR on Wednesday, accusing it at a news conference of working to stop refugees from returning to Syria.
UNHCR has denied the accusation, saying it supports the return of refugees when it is safe for them to go back to Syria and helps those who choose to return with their documentation.
“Their policy is to forbid the return,” Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said. “The Lebanese policy is to encourage the return. Forbid, encourage. Stop, facilitate. That’s it,” Bassil said during the news conference in the town of Arsal, where he spoke alongside Syrian refugees.
“UNHCR does not forbid refugees from returning,” Rula Amin, UNHCR’s MENA region spokesperson sad in emailed comments to Reuters. “UNHCR’s policy is clear on this matter: we respect people’s free choices to return.”
“UNHCR is not the obstacle to the return, the obstacles lay elsewhere and in the complex situation on the ground,” Amin said, adding that the UNHCR recognizes the challenges Lebanon faces in hosting Syrian refugees.
The UN has registered about a million refugees in Lebanon — nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population. The Lebanese government, which puts the figure at 1.5 million, says it wants them to start going back to territory where fighting is over.
Bassil said on Wednesday the burden of hosting Syrian refugees seven years into the conflict that drove them to flee had grown “unbearable,” blaming the crisis for the collapse of the economy and emigration of Lebanese citizens.
Last week, Bassil ordered a freeze on applications by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for residency permits for its staff, saying it was intimidating refugees into staying in Lebanon.
Some 19 UNHCR staff members are affected by the Lebanese residency permit freeze, UNHCR Lebanon representative, Mireille Girard, told Reuters on Tuesday, and the agency’s spokesman in Geneva said it hopes the decision will be reversed.
Bassil accuses UNHCR of discouraging refugees from going home by asking them questions about potential difficulties they face upon return, including possible military conscription, damage to housing and lack of UN support in parts of Syria.
“I don’t want to have disputes with them, but it’s time to tell them enough,” he said.
The UNHCR favors the return of all refugees when it is safe for them to go home and speaks to refugees in all countries when they are preparing to return home to make sure it can give them enough support and protection, Girard said.
Another senior UN official, the deputy special coordinator for Lebanon Philippe Lazzarini, was quoted late on Tuesday as saying it would be “inconceivable” for the body to oppose refugees who wanted to go home.
“We respect refugees’ individual decision to return home and would never, never discourage the return from taking place based on their decision,” Prime Minister designate Saad Al-Hariri’s office quoted Lazzarini as saying during a meeting.
Lebanon’s government is operating on a caretaker basis because Hariri has not yet formed a new cabinet after parliamentary elections on May 6.


Assad pledges to regain control of northern Syria by force if needed

Updated 24 June 2018
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Assad pledges to regain control of northern Syria by force if needed

  • Damascus said it rejected the presence of Turkish and US forces around the northern town of Manbij
  • “We will fight with them (rebels) and return control by force," said Assad

MOSCOW: The Syrian army will regain control of the country’s north by force if rebels there refuse to surrender, President Bashar Assad said in an interview with Russian television channel NTV on Sunday.
Assad’s comments come after Damascus said it rejected the presence of Turkish and US forces around the northern town of Manbij, a day after soldiers of the two countries began patrolling the area.
“We have chosen two paths: the first and most important one is reconciliation... The second path is to attack terrorists if they don’t surrender and refuse to make peace,” Assad said in the interview.
“We will fight with them (rebels) and return control by force. It is certainly not the best option for us, but it’s the only way to get control of the country,” said Assad, responding to a question about the northern part of Syria where rebel groups backed by Turkey hold some territory.
Assad has previously promised to also squeeze rebels from the country’s south, and the Syrian army this week dropped barrel bombs on opposition areas of the country’s southwest on Friday for the first time in a year.
Assad said in the same interview on Sunday that Syria would not accept any Western money to help rebuild the country, which is shattered after seven years of war.
“We have enough strength to rebuild the country. If we don’t have money — we will borrow from our friends, from Syrians living abroad,” Assad said.