Flights suspended from Libyan capital Tripoli’s only working airport: AFP

BEIRUT: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Friday that Syrian refugees in Lebanon need assurances of a “safe and dignified return” to their homeland. 

Grandi’s comments follow confirmation by Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun that Lebanon will continue to organize a gradual voluntary return of refugees in accordance with a Russian initiative.

Mu’in Al-Marabi, Lebanon’s deputy secretary of state, who took part in the meeting between Grandi and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, told Arab News that the UN commissioner had no problem with the Russian initiative, but insisted that conditions should be suitable for repatriation of Syrian refugees.

“Grandi said we must be logical and unbiased when we discuss refugees’ return,” Al-Marabi said.

The UN commissioner cautioned against a hasty solution for the return of refugees, saying this would be counterproductive. 

“At the same time, we are faced with the need to rebuild the infrastructure so that Syrian refugees can live in dignity, which will take an unknown amount of time and require funds — Russia recognizes this and requests the support of international bodies,” Al-Marabi said.

Grandi also called for an end to the Foreign Ministry’s freeze on residency applications by UNHCR staff.

According to the deputy secretary of state, Grandi told Hariri: “We cannot work and help unless our conditions are comfortable and not complicated.” 

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil ordered a freeze on all residency applications by the UN refugee agency in June, saying that the agency had been practicing a “policy of intimidation toward Syrians planning to return.”

Grandi also voiced concern about the worsening situation in Idlib, in northwestern Syria. “This is the next big phase of the war in Syria and it could be devastating, though we hope it is otherwise,” he said.

“We also hope to save the lives of civilians, and the Syrian government said it would try to adopt an approach that saves as many civilians as possible, but you know that the situation is very difficult, complicated, and a cause for concern for everyone, including Lebanon.”

Beirut was Grandi’s third stop on a tour that started from Jordan then Syria, where he met with officials in the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in Damascus and reviewed the measures taken by the Syrian government to facilitate the return of refugees. 

Accompanied by the UNHCR representative in Lebanon, Mireille Girard, Grandi began his visit to Lebanon by meeting Aoun, who demanded that “the UNHCR play a greater role in facilitating the safe return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to their towns and villages.”

More than 735,000 Syrians in Lebanon had been displaced from Syrian territory that is now safe, Aoun said.

Aoun said that “Lebanon will continue to organize the gradual return of Syrian refugees who wish to return,” and called on international organizations to help those who have returned to their towns, villages or safe areas in Syria.

He denied that Lebanese authorities had pressured groups of refugees to return, explaining that “their return to safe areas in Syria was fully voluntary.” 

After meeting with Hariri, Grandi said: “Things have been terrible in Syria during the past years, but we try to observe people’s concerns about whether to return or not.

“We have openly discussed with the Syrian government how to deal with certain challenges, some of which are financial while others are linked to legal matters, and informed President Aoun and PM Hariri of our discussions’ results.”

Grandi said that he had met with Russian officials in Damascus and Geneva, and confirmed that the UNHCR has a close dialogue with Russia.

“We hope that donors will continue to support Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, which I visited a few days ago,” he said. “We need the support of donor states.”

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