BEIRUT: The U.N.’s refugee agency will begin encouraging the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland “without promoting” it, a Foreign Ministry source said Wednesday.
A significant change in the UNHCR’s tone was clear, Foreign Ministry Chief of Cabinet Hadi Hashem told The Daily Star,hours after the agency delivered a letter stating its new stance. The UNHCR was unavailable to confirm the letter’s authenticity or comment on it before The Daily Star went to print.
The development came days after caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil went to Geneva to meet with UNHCR head Filippo Grandi and voice his disapproval of the agency’s alleged tactics of “scaring” refugees from returning to Syria.
Although the agency does not support organizing the return of refugees as it awaits a better political situation in Syria, it will encourage voluntary return and work with its team inside Syria to remove obstacles endangering those who wish to return, according to Hashem. “There is a complete change in their tone, which is very encouraging but we also expect more,” Hashem said. Among the new proposals include a roundtable with all Lebanese ministries involved in the refugee issue to discuss a plan for the return of refugees. “They also agreed to Minister Bassil’s calls to split the refugees into different categories,” Hashem added.
The Foreign Ministry has proposed dividing refugees into categories – those wanting to return who have places to stay, those who go to and from Syria freely and those who want to return but don’t have a place to stay. There will be a step-by-step plan for refugees who want to voluntarily return, in accordance with talks to take place between Lebanese officials and the UNHCR.
The UNHCR’s new stance includes updating its return plan, which it has maintained since 2011 with revisions in 2016. With changes rapidly taking place on the ground inside Syria, the new position admits that the plan must be updated. In Wednesday’s letter to the ministry, the UNHCR said it will also encourage dialogue between ministries and authorities and that a series of meetings will be held in the coming days.
Meetings will cover on-the-ground events in support of spontaneous return, including working with the UNHCR team inside Syria to provide aid to those returning. They will also work with the team in Syria to remove obstacles threatening the safety of those who return.
The UNHCR will look to establish related repatriation protocols as the situation in Syria develops. U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has previously said it was only a matter of time before the situation in Syria ends.
A second step by the UNHCR will facilitate the return of refugees to Syria in the absence of safeguards of U.N. protocol for a safe return. The UNHCR reiterated its stance that it is not currently in a position to organize the return; however, it reaffirmed the U.N.’s respect for the decision of those who wish to return now, individually or in a group.
Hashem said a number of activities would be undertaken by the refugee agency in support of such returns to be discussed in the upcoming meetings.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR is “pleased” to share updates with the Foreign Ministry on data it has on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It has done so with the Social Affairs Ministry since 2015, while contributing to supporting General Security in developing a national center for statistics from 2016.
Such data will help in preventing a number of newborn babies from not being registered as Syrian nationals. Hashem noted that this would also help in allowing for accurate numbers when the time comes for a return to Syria. “If they aren’t registered, what guarantees that the Syrian government won’t say the child doesn’t have any paperwork and he wasn’t born there, therefore he stays in Lebanon?”
In addition, an updated database will be revised by removing Syrian nationals that are registered as refugees but go to and from their homeland and continue to receive international aid.
Bassil ordered a freeze on the renewal of UNHCR staff residency permits until further notice on June 8, citing an alleged “policy of intimidation” after he informed the U.N. secretary-general and warned the UNHCR’s Beirut representative about the policies.
“This is a positive first step and a change of tone from the UNHCR, but there is more to be done,” Hashem said.