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The New Arab

Lebanon freezes residency permits for UN staff working with Syria refugees

UN workers are a lifeline for Syrian refugees in Lebanon [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 June, 2018

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Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has frozen residency permits for UN staff working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Lebanon has frozen residency permits for UN refugee agency (UNHCR) workers, accusing staff of "intimidating" refugees to prevent their return to Syria.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil warned yesterday of "retaliatory measures" against the UNHCR, after the agency stated that the situation in Syria was still too dangerous for refugees to return to.

Bassil is part of a pro-Damascus wing of Lebanese politics, which sympathises with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iran.

Many politicians have spoken out against the mostly Sunni Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon following intense regime bombing since 2011, and urged them to return to "safe" areas of the war-torn country.

"Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Gebran Bassil issued instructions... to stop the requests for residency presented to the ministry and (those already submitted) for the UNHCR in Lebanon until further notice," a statement from the foreign ministry read.

"Bassil asked for the study of other progressive measures... in the case that the UNHCR is determined to pursue the same policy."

The UNHCR has denied the allegations.

"We do not discourage or oppose returns taking place based on an individual decision," William Spindler of the agency told reporters.

"But in our view, conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for an assisted return, although the situation is changing and we are following closely," he said.

Around 1.1 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, although Beirut puts the number at 1.5 million and said it is unable afford hosting the population.

A strong anti-refugee backlash has also gripped some sections of Lebanese society and there has been pressure on Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon.

Despite a slight lull in fighting recently, the dangers for civilians in Syria is still grave.

Around 45 people were killed in suspected Russian bombing of Idlib province last night.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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