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article imageLebanon blocks UNHCR residency permits over Syria refugee spat

By AFP     Jun 8, 2018 in World

Lebanon has accused the United Nations refugee agency of intimidating refugees to prevent their return to Syria and on Friday blocked residency applications for the agency's staff.

"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 said.

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

Bassil late Thursday warned his country would start taking measures against the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees over allegations the agency was preventing Syrian refugees from returning home.

"We sent a mission that verified that the UNHCR is intimidating the displaced who wish to return voluntarily," he tweeted.

A UNHCR spokesperson responded by denying that the agency's staff were discouraging refugees from considering a return.

"We do not discourage or oppose returns taking place based on an individual decision," William Spindler 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.

Lebanon has seen its water, electricity and waste removal infrastructure strained by the influx of Syrian refugees.

But international non-governmental organisations also say their presence has helped stimulate the economy.

In April, the UNHCR suggested that the government-organised 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 is expected to soon have a new government after last month's parliamentary elections.

Syrian refugees are a recurring topic in Lebanon's political debate, but Bassil has taken a hard line and been the only leading politician directly attacking the UN.

Syria's regime has retaken more than half of the country since Russia intervened in 2015 on its behalf.

The war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

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