ARSAL, Lebanon — A public spat between the Lebanese government and the U.N. refugee agency deepened Wednesday as Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister kept up his criticism, accusing the agency of discouraging Syrian refugees from returning home.
"It's time to tell them enough. That's it," Gibran Bassil said, adding that Lebanon's economy is collapsing and that no other country in the world has been as accommodating and offered as much concessions.
Lebanon is home to more than a million Syrian refugees, or about a quarter of the country's population, putting a huge strain on the economy.
The hospitality shown by the tiny, politically and economically fragile country has won praise from international leaders, U.N. officials and donor countries. But sentiments against refugees have been increasing amid political divisions and an economic crunch, especially after groups calling for their return made major gains in last month's parliamentary elections.
Bassil spoke to reporters during a visit to the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal near the border with Syria, days after he ordered a freeze on the renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff.
He has accused the agency of discouraging the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon by emphasizing in their questions to refugees the lack of security guarantees and compulsory military service back home, and telling them the agency would halt assistance in the event of their return.
"Actually, they are telling them not to go back," he said, before touring refugee settlements in Arsal and chatting with displaced people.
Many regions in war-torn Syria have stabilized in the past two years as the Syrian government, backed by its allies Russia and Iran, recaptured areas previously held by rebels and Islamic militants. But many refugees fear they would be harassed or detained if they return, and many have lost their homes and have nothing to return to.
Bassil's decision to freeze renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff has been criticized by some politicians and diplomats locally and has angered the agency, which rejected his accusations. In New York, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said UNHCR is "very concerned."
"This directly impacts UNHCR's ability to effectively carry out critical protection and solutions work in Lebanon. UNHCR hopes the decision of the Foreign Ministry will be reversed without delay," he told reporters on Wednesday. He added that the agency respects the rights of refugees to decide freely on returning home.
The U.N. "does not discourage returns that are based on individual, free and informed decisions," he added.
A U.N. official in Beirut, Philippe Lazzarini, said the U.N. respects refugees' individual decisions to return home and would never discourage their return.
"It is their right and it would be inconceivable for the U.N. to oppose a refugee's decision regarding his or her future," he was quoted as saying after meeting with the Lebanese premier Tuesday evening.
Bassil, however, said the agency's website cautions against a quick return for displaced Syrians. He said the difference between the Lebanese government and the international community is that they want the crisis to be drawn out "while we want it to be short. Their policy is to forbid the return (of refugees), the Lebanese policy is to encourage return," he said at Wednesday's press conference.
"We do not want problems, but it's time to tell them enough. That's it... Lebanon's interests are at stake."