BEIRUT - Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Thursday refugees in Lebanon could begin a phased return to areas of Syria that have become safe, and that should happen before a political solution is reached for the conflict.
"Lebanon considers that a return has become possible in stages to areas that have become safe and stable in Syria, which are five times the size of Lebanon. Most displaced people in Lebanon are from these areas which have become secure," Aoun said on his Twitter page, in remarks to the ambassadors from the countries in the International Support Group for Lebanon.
Lebanon's hosting of the displaced from its war-torn neighbour has won praise from the international community, but sentiments against Syrian refugees have been increasing amid economic pressures, especially since groups calling for their return made major gains in last month’s parliamentary elections.
As Syrian forces and their allies retake more territory, Aoun and other politicians have increasingly called for refugees to go back to areas where fighting is over before a deal is reached to end the war. The international view is that it would not be safe for them to return yet.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in the past week has escalated a row with the United Nation's refugee agency UNHCR, accusing it of working to stop refugees from returning to Syria and announcing a freeze on applications for residency permits by UNHCR staff members in Lebanon.
"It's time to tell them enough, that's it," Bassil said on Wednesday, noting that Lebanon's economy is collapsing and and that no other country in the world had been as accommodating in dealing with the global refugee crisis.
He said the difference between the Lebanese government and the international community is that they want the crisis to be drawn out, “while we want it to be short.“
"Political commitments change with developments on the ground, making us unable to wait for a political solution to the Syrian crisis before the displaced start to return," he said.
UNHCR has denied the accusations, saying it supports the return of refugees when it is safe for them to go back to Syria and that it helps those who choose to return with their documentation.
“UNHCR is not the obstacle to the return, the obstacles lay elsewhere and in the complex situation on the ground,” Rula Amin, UNHCR’s MENA region spokesperson said, adding that the UNHCR recognizes the challenges Lebanon faces in hosting Syrian refugees.
Germany's ambassador in Beirut, Martin Huth, said on Thursday that the international community is "dismayed by repeated false accusations" that it is working to settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon,
Huth said in a statement that the international community was "fully aware of the heavy burden Lebanon is bearing" through hosting more than a million refugees.
"Many of us are doing all we can to alleviate the situation," he added, citing assistance and commitments made to Lebanon through international donor conferences and UN agencies.
He said the international community and the United Nations were "fully committed to an eventual return of refugees to Syria".
"At the same time, and while we do not oppose voluntary returns to Syria, conditions in that country, in our view, do not allow for a general and comprehensive return of refugees at this time."
Aoun had said in April that statements from the international community pointed "to a disguised settlement [of refugees in Lebanon] that contradicts our constitution and sovereignty".
The UN has registered about a million refugees in Lebanon - nearly a quarter of Lebanon's population. The Lebanese government, which puts the figure at 1.5 million, says their presence has strained public services and suppressed economic growth.