BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has ordered a freeze on residency applications submitted by staff of the United Nations’ refugee agency, accusing it of hindering the return of Syrian refugees by “spreading fear”, his office said on Friday.
The agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said it did not discourage refugees from returning to Syria if they wanted to or spreading fear about conditions.
Lebanon hosts more than a million Syrian refugees who constitute more than a quarter of its population and says their presence has strained public services and suppressed economic growth.
As Syrian forces and their allies retake more territory, Lebanon’s president and other top politicians have increasingly called for refugees to return to “secure areas”.
In an emailed statement, Bassil said he would consider taking further measures against the agency.
On Thursday the mayor of Arsal, a Lebanese border town hosting tens of thousands of refugees, said around 3,000 of them were expected to go back to Syria in the coming week.
Bassil said UNHCR had discouraged refugees in Arsal from returning by asking them questions about conditions they might face in Syria, including the possibility of military conscription, security problems and poor accommodation.
UNHCR officials said Lebanon’s government had not yet formally notified it of the step.
“UNHCR does not try to discourage the refugees from returning back to Syria at all. We respect people’s decisions, the individual decisions for people to return,” said Rula Amin, spokeswoman for the agency in the Middle East.
“We have huge programmes to assist refugees here in Lebanon... part of that is to talk to the refugees and to listen, listen to their concerns, listen to their needs,” she added.
Lebanon’s government is operating on a caretaker basis because prime minister designate Saad al-Hariri has not yet formed a government since parliamentary elections on May 6.
Reporting By Dahlia Nehme and Angus McDowall; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky