BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said on Thursday Lebanon would take measures against the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR starting Friday, without specifying what those measures were.
Bassil has accused the UNHCR - which has repeatedly said the situation inside Syria is too insecure for returns - of intimidating refugees who wish to voluntarily go back into not doing so.
As Syrian forces and their allies retake more territory, Lebanon’s president and other politicians are calling for refugees to go back to “secure areas” before a deal is reached to end the war. The international view is that it would not be safe for them to return.
Lebanon hosts around 1 million registered Syrian refugees according to the United Nations, or roughly a quarter of the population, who have fled the war since 2011. The government puts the number at 1.5 million and says their presence has strained public services and suppressed economic growth.
“Our procedures against UNHCR begin tomorrow, and they will escalate to the maximum extent that sovereign Lebanon can achieve toward an organization which acts against (Lebanon’s) policy of preventing naturalization and returning the displaced to their homeland,” Bassil said in a speech published on his Twitter page.
Last week, the head of Lebanon’s general security agency, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, said Lebanon was working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria.
And on Thursday the mayor of a Lebanese border town hosting tens of thousands of refugees said around 3,000 are expected to go back to Syria in the coming week.
“Today we sent a mission which verified that UNHCR is intimidating the displaced people who wish to return voluntarily,” Bassil said.
“Our affection for (the displaced Syrians) says that the time has come for returns since conditions are safe,” he said, adding that only the international community is stopping this happening.
“We announce our determination to break the international desire to prevent the return of the displaced,” he said.
Bassil is now a caretaker minister because Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri has not yet formed a government after parliamentary elections on May 6.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington, editing by Larry King