Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on Friday ordered a freeze on residency applications from staff working for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, “until further instructions are issued.”
It came as he accused the organization of intimidating and spreading fear among refugees to prevent them returning to Syria. The move shocked Lebanese politics and has angered officials involved in refugees’ affairs.
“Bassil’s order will have repercussions,” said Nadim Munla, senior adviser to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. “All UN-related residency documents pass through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” He described the foreign minister’s actions as “a unilateral decision that does not reflect the government’s policy.”
“Bassil has made a mistake and he isn’t the right authority for carrying out investigations and issuing and implementing orders,” he added.
“Bassil should have discussed the matter with PM Saad Hariri and the minister of refugees’ affairs if he had all the required information, and only then a government decision could be made based on this information.” He added that Bassil “should withdraw his order” and “was meddling with other officials’ responsibilities.”
Minister of Refugees Affairs Moeen Al-Marabi also called on Bassil to withdraw the order.
“The government is like a beehive, which means any decision concerning Lebanon’s supreme interest cannot be made by a minister alone,” he said. “We have not held a meeting and there is a ministerial committee responsible for refugees ... but it has not looked into the matter.
“Minister Bassil is acting as if he were Lebanon’s Pharaoh. We care for Syria, its unity, and its people and we have welcomed Syrian refugees from a humanitarian perspective. We rely on UNHCR to coordinate with all the Syrian parties in order to send refugees back to their country.
“Why doesn’t Bassil speak to his ally, Hezbollah, and ask them to withdraw their men from Syria so that refugees can return to their country?”
Al-Marabi also said Bassil had refused to set up shelters for Syrian refugees in 2013 and 2014 “but is now upset because the international community is supporting refugees and Lebanon.”
Bassil was quoted as saying that a team assigned by him visited the Lebanese border town of Arsal, where many refugees reside, and reported that some of them who initially planned to return to Syria as part of the reconciliation process were now reluctant to do so because UNHCR representatives had asked them questions that increased their fears and made them hesitant.
On Thursday night, he said that his team Arsal had reported there were refugees who wanted to return to Syria but the UNHCR was spreading fear among them. He posted on Twitter: “We sent a mission that verified that the UNHCR is intimidating the displaced who wish to return voluntarily.”
“The questions we asked Syrian refugees were not solely for Syrians but a procedure implemented across the world,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled, who stressed that the organization’s activities in Lebanon complied with international standards.
She said the UNHCR team had asked the same questions to refugees in the southern Lebanese town of Shebaa before they returned to Syria, and that “these questions did not cause fear or hesitation.”
“On the contrary, 500 refugees have returned to Syria from Shebaa,” she added.
Abou Khaled refused to comment on Bassil’s announcement, but said: “We have not received anything official from the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs until now and when we do, we’ll study the matter and comment on it.”
She also highlighted the fact that the team working with UNHCR in Lebanon is made up of 600 Lebanese and foreigners.
In April, UNHCR suggested that a government-organized return of 500 refugees was premature, explaining that it was not involved due to the prevailing humanitarian and security situation in Syria.
The world body’s position infuriated Bassil, who warned Lebanon could “re-evaluate” the UN agency’s work.
Lebanon hosts an estimated 1.5 million people displaced by the war in neighboring Syria, equivalent to more than a quarter of its population before the conflict began.
European Union ambassadors to Lebanon will meet on Monday with UNHCR Representative in Lebanon Mireille Girard, who is currently overseas but expected to return to Lebanon within hours.