BEIRUT (Reuters) - The international community is “dismayed by repeated false accusations” that it is working to settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Germany’s ambassador in Beirut said on Thursday.
As Syria’s army and allied forces retake more territory, officials have stepped up calls for some of the more than a million refugees registered in Lebanon to go back to parts of Syria where violence has died down, before a deal is reached to end the war.
But the international view is that it is not yet safe to return, and Lebanese caretaker foreign minister Gebran Bassil has accused the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, and foreign countries of preventing Syrians returning home.
Martin Huth, the German envoy, told Reuters in an emailed statement that the international community was “fully aware of the heavy burden Lebanon is bearing”.
“Many of us are doing all we can to alleviate the situation,” Huth said, citing aid and commitments made to Lebanon through donor conferences and U.N. agencies. He said the international community and the United Nations were “fully committed to an eventual return of refugees to Syria”.
“At the same time, and while we do not oppose voluntary returns to Syria, conditions in that country, in our view, do not allow for a general and comprehensive return of refugees at this time,” he added.
In May, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said U.N. and EU comments pointed to “a disguised settlement (of refugees in Lebanon) that contradicts our constitution and sovereignty”.
UNHCR has denied trying to stop Syrians going home, saying it supports return when it is safe, and helps to provide documents for those who do choose to go back.
“The policy should be allowing, if not encouraging, the dignified and safe return,” Bassil said in Geneva on Thursday after meeting UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi.
“I am talking of the category of Syrians who want, willingly, voluntarily, to go back,” Bassil told Reuters. “This is the first phase of return.”
Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, has frozen applications for residency permits from UNHCR staff in Lebanon.
He described the meeting with Grandi as positive but said he was waiting for a “more practical” UNHCR policy on returns.
He said he did not intend to stop working with the agency, but added: “If the policy will stay the same, yes, we will take more measures.”
The multi-sided, seven-year war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 11 million Syrians out of their homes, including nearly 6 million who fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.
Aoun told ambassadors on Thursday that “a return has become possible in stages to areas that have become safe and stable in Syria, which are five times the size of Lebanon”.
One concern for people who want to return is whether they will be conscripted into the military.
Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah said on Thursday it stood “fully ready to cooperate positively to speed up” the issue of returns. The heavily armed Iranian-backed movement has sent thousands of fighters to help the Syrian state claw back control of major cities from rebels and militants.
“The return of displaced Syrians to their country, in a voluntary and safe way, requires a responsible approach and we have started to sense promising signs,” its parliamentary bloc said in a televised statement.
Reporting By Angus McDowall and Ellen Francis in Beirut and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Kevin Liffey