June 8, 2018 / 12:10 PM / 12 days ago

Lebanon freezes UNHCR staff residency applications in row over Syrian refugees

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has ordered a freeze on residency applications submitted by staff of the United Nations’ refugee agency, accusing it of hindering the return of Syrian refugees by “spreading fear”, his office said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian refugee receives aid from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Batroun, northern Lebanon January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim/File Photo

Lebanon hosts more than a million Syrian refugees who constitute more than a quarter of its population and says their presence has strained public services and suppressed economic growth.

As Syrian forces and their allies retake more territory, Lebanon’s president and other top politicians have increasingly called for refugees to return to “secure areas”.

In an emailed statement, Bassil said he would consider taking further measures against the agency.

On Thursday the mayor of Arsal, a Lebanese border town hosting tens of thousands of refugees, said around 3,000 of them were expected to go back to Syria in the coming week.

Bassil said UNHCR had discouraged refugees in Arsal from returning by asking them questions about conditions they might face in Syria, including the possibility of military conscription, security problems and poor accommodation.

UNHCR officials said Lebanon’s government had not yet formally notified it of the step.

Lebanon’s government is operating on a caretaker basis because prime minister designate Saad al-Hariri has not yet formed a government since parliamentary elections on May 6.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

Reporting By Dahlia Nehme and Angus McDowall; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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