UNHCR chief calls for ‘dignified return’ of Syrian exiles

Filippo Grandi addresses a press conference in Beirut on Friday. (AP)
Updated 01 September 2018
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UNHCR chief calls for ‘dignified return’ of Syrian exiles

  • Grandi’s comments follow confirmation by Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun that Lebanon will continue to organize a gradual voluntary return of refugees
  • The UN commissioner cautioned against a hasty solution for the return of refugees

BEIRUT: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Friday that Syrian refugees in Lebanon need assurances of a “safe and dignified return” to their homeland. 

Grandi’s comments follow confirmation by Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun that Lebanon will continue to organize a gradual voluntary return of refugees in accordance with a Russian initiative.

Mu’in Al-Marabi, Lebanon’s deputy secretary of state, who took part in the meeting between Grandi and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, told Arab News that the UN commissioner had no problem with the Russian initiative, but insisted that conditions should be suitable for repatriation of Syrian refugees.

“Grandi said we must be logical and unbiased when we discuss refugees’ return,” Al-Marabi said.

The UN commissioner cautioned against a hasty solution for the return of refugees, saying this would be counterproductive. 

“At the same time, we are faced with the need to rebuild the infrastructure so that Syrian refugees can live in dignity, which will take an unknown amount of time and require funds — Russia recognizes this and requests the support of international bodies,” Al-Marabi said.

Grandi also called for an end to the Foreign Ministry’s freeze on residency applications by UNHCR staff.

According to the deputy secretary of state, Grandi told Hariri: “We cannot work and help unless our conditions are comfortable and not complicated.” 

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil ordered a freeze on all residency applications by the UN refugee agency in June, saying that the agency had been practicing a “policy of intimidation toward Syrians planning to return.”

Grandi also voiced concern about the worsening situation in Idlib, in northwestern Syria. “This is the next big phase of the war in Syria and it could be devastating, though we hope it is otherwise,” he said.

“We also hope to save the lives of civilians, and the Syrian government said it would try to adopt an approach that saves as many civilians as possible, but you know that the situation is very difficult, complicated, and a cause for concern for everyone, including Lebanon.”

Beirut was Grandi’s third stop on a tour that started from Jordan then Syria, where he met with officials in the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in Damascus and reviewed the measures taken by the Syrian government to facilitate the return of refugees. 

Accompanied by the UNHCR representative in Lebanon, Mireille Girard, Grandi began his visit to Lebanon by meeting Aoun, who demanded that “the UNHCR play a greater role in facilitating the safe return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to their towns and villages.”

More than 735,000 Syrians in Lebanon had been displaced from Syrian territory that is now safe, Aoun said.

Aoun said that “Lebanon will continue to organize the gradual return of Syrian refugees who wish to return,” and called on international organizations to help those who have returned to their towns, villages or safe areas in Syria.

He denied that Lebanese authorities had pressured groups of refugees to return, explaining that “their return to safe areas in Syria was fully voluntary.” 

After meeting with Hariri, Grandi said: “Things have been terrible in Syria during the past years, but we try to observe people’s concerns about whether to return or not.

“We have openly discussed with the Syrian government how to deal with certain challenges, some of which are financial while others are linked to legal matters, and informed President Aoun and PM Hariri of our discussions’ results.”

Grandi said that he had met with Russian officials in Damascus and Geneva, and confirmed that the UNHCR has a close dialogue with Russia.

“We hope that donors will continue to support Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, which I visited a few days ago,” he said. “We need the support of donor states.”


Turkey says understands NATO concerns over Russian missile deal

Updated 19 April 2019
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Turkey says understands NATO concerns over Russian missile deal

  • The deal for Russian S-400 missiles riled Washington, prompting US officials to suspend Turkey’s participation in the US-made F-35 jet program
  • Washington says Turkey’s adoption of Russian missile technology alongside US fighter jets would not be compatible within NATO defenses

ISTANBUL: Turkey is “taking into account” NATO concerns over its Russian missile deal, the country’s foreign minister said on Friday, in more conciliatory remarks over a purchase stoking tensions between Washington and Ankara.
The deal for Russian S-400 missiles riled Washington, prompting US officials to suspend Turkey’s participation in the US-made F-35 jet program and warn of more sanctions against its NATO ally.
Washington says Turkey’s adoption of Russian missile technology alongside US fighter jets would not be compatible within NATO defenses, citing security risks.
“We are taking into account NATO’s concerns. It is not right to say Turkey is not considering them,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a press conference in Ankara.
His remarks followed a visit by Turkey’s defense minister to Washington and a meeting between US President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law at the White House, where they discussed the S-400 deal, local media reported.
“We don’t find credible the concerns that the S-400 system will allow access to the F-35 technology if they are deployed in Turkey,” the minister said.
He said Ankara was still waiting for a US response to Turkey’s proposal to set up a working group between them to work out differences over the Russian deal.
The S-400 purchase is one dispute fueling tensions between the two nations, who are also at odds over US support for Syrian Kurdish militias who Ankara brands a terrorist group and Turkish backing for US foe Venezuela.
This month, after repeated warnings, the United States said Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 system was incompatible with it remaining part of the emblematic F-35 jet program.
Turkey had planned to buy 100 F-35A fighter jets, with pilots already training in the United States.
With Turkey in recession for the first time in a decade after a currency crisis last year, analysts say Ankara may look to avoid imposition of new US sanctions that would further damage the economy.
Last year, a trade dispute with the US prompted Washington to impose sanctions and tariffs on some Turkish goods, knocking around 30 percent off the value of the local lira currency.
Local Turkish media have reported Turkey may be considering options to ease tensions, such as the non-activation of the S-400 after delivery to Turkey, or the transfer of Russian missiles to a third country.