UN holds talks with Lebanon over Syrian refugee crisis
Syrian refugees in Lebanon make up at least 27 percent of the population (File/AFP)
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The ambiguities surrounding Lebanon’s changing policy toward Syrian refugees are being tackled at the negotiating table, the UNHCR said Sunday, after the foreign minister called for making the registration of refugees the prerogative of the government.
“We are working on issues pertaining to access with the Social Affairs and Interior ministries,” UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman said.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said Friday that Lebanon must start imposing its own conditions and regulations regarding the entry and registration of Syrians fleeing the violence in their country.
Specifically, he said the criteria for registering refugees should be the responsibility of the state, not the UN, in line with a series of decisions approved by a ministerial committee to curb the deluge of refugees from Syria. He had said he was confident that the UNHCR would abide by the new regulations if the government simply made the request.
Hala al-Helou, an aide to Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, said if the issue of re-organizing registration was being discussed it was in line with the government’s bid to overhaul refugee management altogether.
“I can say for sure that a decision was taken from the government side to try and regulate the issue of registration and to try to work on de-registering certain people,” she said. “This is being discussed.”
The individuals in question are those with a history of frequent travel to Syria. In June, the Interior Ministry decreed that Syrian refugees who travel back to their country would have their refugee status revoked.
Early on in the crisis, Helou said, registration was carried out jointly between the government and the UN under common criteria, with the government focused in urban areas. As the UNHCR moved to respond to the overwhelming influx of Syrians in the Bekaa Valley, the government remained centralized and the agency reverted back to its own criteria, she said. The former criteria had been “a bit stricter” but limited in scope.
George Ghali, program officer for the non-governmental organization ALEF, said that although he had not heard of Bassil’s call being implemented, doing so would be in violation of human rights standards.
“A government can’t unilaterally create [refugee registration] standards,” he said, adding: “International standards need to be followed because a refugee is a person who needs international protection.”
Lebanon’s experience of leading registration efforts through the Higher Relief Council during the first six months of the crisis proved that it was not up to the challenge, he said. The UNHCR soon took over complete responsibility for registration because of lack of funding, lack of capacity and general mistrust toward the government among refugees.
Yahya Faris, a Syrian refugee living in a tented community in Bar Elias, said he would prefer that the UN remain in control of registration because they are “neutral.”
“People of course are going to be afraid because of sectarianism and the possibility that a second party would interfere,” he said.
Separately, Aliya Mansour, a member of the National Syrian Coalition, slammed Bassil for opposing refugee camps inside Lebanon, arguing that Syrians would return to their homes as soon as the war ends, and reiterating the coalition’s support to set up camps along the borders.
By Samya Kullab