BEIRUT — Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister threatened Thursday to increase pressure on the U.N. refugee agency if it does not change its policies, which he says discourage Syrian refugees from returning to their country.
Gibran Bassil made his comments in Geneva following a meeting with Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, days after the Lebanese official ordered a freeze on the renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff.
Bassil said he is ready to lift the measures "if I see tangible steps," but is also ready to take further action if things continue as they are.
"We want a solution for a crisis that Lebanon cannot tolerate anymore. Its economy is on the verge of collapse," Bassil told the local Al-Jadeed TV.
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. Tens of thousands of others have moved into Lebanon, renting homes and sending their children to private schools and universities.
President Michel Aoun told ambassadors in Lebanon Thursday that the return of Syrian refugees to their country "cannot wait for a political solution for the Syrian crisis that still needs time." Aoun added that since the refugee crisis began seven years ago, it has cost Lebanon $9.76 billion, saying "Lebanon cannot tolerate their presence here."
U.N. officials, donor countries and the international community have praised the hospitality offered by Lebanon, a tiny country with one of the highest debt to gross domestic product ratios in the world.
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.