ARSAL, Lebanon: Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil doubled down on his recent combative rhetoric toward the U.N. refugee agency Wednesday, extending his attacks to the wider international community. Bassil, speaking from a cave in which 10 Lebanese soldiers captured by Daesh (ISIS) in 2014 were held, said he was thinking “of the conspiracy that threatened our existence ... I am thinking of all those responsible in the international community who committed such a crime against Lebanon and Syria.” This conspiracy, he said, came about through “policies drawn to destroy this region, to further the interests of Israel and powers who refuse to have this diversity here.”
The minister’s comments came during a coordinated tour of the border town of Arsal which appeared aimed at demonstrating the renewed safety of the Lebanon-Syria border, the sacrifices made by Lebanon’s soldiers to bring about such safety and the willingness of refugees to return to their homes in Syria.
Bassil claimed that Lebanese of all sects and from all over the country wanted the return of Syrian refugees, while similarly the Syrian nationals “from everywhere and from all sects want this.”
Bassil also offered a warning to the international community. During a news conference at the beginning of the tour he presented a plastic envelope: “This is what I received now,” he said. “A letter from one of [the Syrian community’s] representatives saying, ‘Either allow us to go back to Syria or work for us to be repatriated in Europe.’”
The comments come in the wake of a marked escalation in tensions between the Foreign Ministry and the UNHCR, which culminated last Friday with Bassil ordering a freeze on the renewal of UNHCR staff residency permits after claiming the agency had been scaring refugees from returning to Syria.
The Foreign Ministry’s actions were met with strong condemnation, not least from other members of Lebanon’s caretaker government. Bassil sought to play down conflicts over the issue. “Neither Prime Minister [designate Saad] Hariri nor any other official want problems with the U.N. ... But it is time to say enough,” he said. “Lebanon’s interests are at stake and are more important than other matters.”
“[The UNHCR’s] policy is to forbid the return, the Lebanese policy is to encourage the return,” Bassil said during Wednesday’s tour. He insisted he was not “angry” at the agency, rather “surprised that they are not respecting our policy and not abiding by our will and sovereignty.”
The UNHCR responded to Bassil’s allegations in a statement to The Daily Star late Wednesday, saying that it “would not try to discourage the refugees from returning when they chose to do so.”
The statement said the UNHCR “respects and has always respected the sovereignty of Lebanon,” adding that it had made clear that it respected Lebanese government policy, which states that the integration of refugees into the Lebanese community is not an option. “The return of the refugees is the ultimate preferred solution for the refugee crisis,” the statement read.
Nevertheless the agency defended the questions it had been asking of refugees, saying it “has a duty to make sure that refugees are well informed as they make these important decisions.”
The reaction of the refugee community in Arsal to Bassil’s visit was mixed. Some were waiting for the minister’s convoy to arrive during a visit to one of the town’s refugee camps and were more than happy to back proposals to facilitate a return.
“We want to go back to our country,” one person told Bassil outside a tent whose carefully tended vegetable garden demonstrated the length of time its occupants had been living there.
“We are young, if we don’t go back who will rebuild? We want to go back to our nation – our only nation. Syria is our mother.” One elderly Syrian woman threw flowers over the minister’s car as he left.
Another refugee, who said his name was Mohammad and his hometown Al-Qusair, said he wanted to return. “Why wouldn’t someone go back to their home?” he asked. However, he was worried about the level of safety in Syria and insisted he wanted the involvement of the international community. “If there are United Nations guarantees we will return. If there aren’t, we won’t return,” he said.
Hammam al-Amir, a refugee from Flita on the other side of the Syrian border, was more skeptical, saying he estimated only 150 of a town of 10,000 refugees would be willing to return at this stage. He noted that many were returning because of a recent law passed by the Syrian government, known as Law 10, which gives the government the right to expropriate the property of Syrian nationals unless they return to claim it.
This was driving older Syrian nationals back to the country, he said, while many of the younger generation were unwilling to return for fear of being called up to military service.
He too called for the involvement of international agencies. “The return is wrong,” he said. “There is no safety and it is unsecured. It should be secured by the United Nations.”