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Despite Tensions UNHCR, Lebanon Working on Same Side Regarding Syrian Refugees

Jul 11

Despite Tensions UNHCR, Lebanon Working on Same Side Regarding Syrian Refugees

Amid ongoing tensions over refugee returns, representatives of Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry and the United Nations refugee agency appeared side by side Monday in support of a global agreement outlining how the international community should approach refugee crises.

The UNHCR has been working with member states including Lebanon to develop the global compact. A draft of the document was released June 26 and is expected to be submitted to the U.N. General Assembly by the end of the year.

The compact’s stated goal is to “provide a basis for predictable and equitable burden- and responsibility-sharing” among U.N. member states, with the objectives of easing pressure on host countries, enhancing refugees’ self-reliance, expanding their access to resettlement in third countries and supporting conditions in their home countries for “return in safety and dignity.”

The latter has been a point of contention between the Foreign Ministry and the UNHCR recently.

On June 8, Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil ordered a freeze on the renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff after a blowup over the agency’s role in the return of refugees from Arsal.

The caretaker minister accused UNHCR staff who interviewed the potential returnees of trying to scare them out of going back.

Karolina Lindholm Billing, deputy regional representative for UNHCR, appeared alongside Alia Aoun, a senior legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, at a panel discussion on the Global Refugee Compact that was hosted by the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute.

In the discussion, Aoun voiced hope that the compact might push wealthy countries to accept more refugees rather than simply sending funding to the neighboring countries that host most of them.

“Lebanon has a strong interest in the establishment of a concrete mechanism of responsibility-sharing,” she said.

Aoun and Lindholm Billing declined to comment on the current status of the residency permit dispute, and there were no outbreaks of verbal sparring. But tensions over the question of returns were evident in some of their comments.

In a response to one audience member’s question about the likelihood of a possible political solution to the war in Syria, Aoun said that “there is no need to wait to the end of the war to start a voluntary repatriation process.” Lindholm Billing, on the other hand, voiced concerns that United Nations staff had been unable to get permission from the Syrian authorities to enter some of the areas to which refugees had returned from Lebanon.

To set up repatriation programs and provide services, she said, “it requires that certain guarantees are in place, including that the UNHCR, for instance, has unhindered access to the areas where people are returning to – which is currently not the case.”

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