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World

Refugee returns to Syria must be coordinated with UN: Merkel

By AFP 23/6/2018
Twenty-eight year-old Syrian Asmar Alus  and his wife 26 year-old Berivan Alus look at photographs on a smartphone outside Albania's National Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers in Tirana on June 19, 2018. Photo: Gent Shkullaku | AFP
Twenty-eight year-old Syrian Asmar Alus and his wife 26 year-old Berivan Alus look at photographs on a smartphone outside Albania's National Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers in Tirana on June 19, 2018. Photo: Gent Shkullaku | AFP
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The return of Syrian refugees to their homeland can only happen in coordination with the United Nations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday during her two-day visit to Lebanon.

Refugee returns have been a hot-button issue in Lebanon, a small country that has the world's highest number of refugees per capita.

"We want to contribute to reaching a political solution in Syria, that will allow refugees to return to Syria," Merkel told reporters on Friday, after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

"I confirmed with officials that returns can only happen in agreement and talks with UN organisations," she added.

Around 500 refugees left southern Lebanon earlier this year for Syria in a return organised between Lebanese and Syrian authorities, and several thousand have gone back to their homeland from towns around the border in recent years.

The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) says it is not involved in the return process and does not yet consider Syria safe enough for refugees to return.

Lebanese officials have been increasingly calling for refugee returns with or without a political solution to Syria's seven-year-old crisis.

Merkel said it was "understandable" that the large refugee influx had caused tensions in Lebanon but expressed hope they could be resolved.

Her comments come at a rocky time for ties between Lebanon's government and the UNHCR.

This month, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil ordered a halt to new residency permits for UNHCR's foreign staff, accusing them of "intimidating the displaced who wish to return voluntarily".

The UN has said it hopes Bassil will rescind his decision. The rest of Lebanon's government has not officially commented.

Hariri, who has been appointed for a third term as Lebanon's premier, said his country was still seeking refugee returns "as quickly as possible".

"The only permanent solution for Syrian refugees is their return to Syria in a safe and dignified manner," he told reporters.

Merkel is also due to meet Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Friday, before flying back to Germany where she faces intense pressure to curb migrant arrivals.

Before Lebanon, Merkel was in Jordan where she met King Abdullah II.

Lebanon is home to nearly one million Syrian refugees while Jordan says it is hosting more than 1.4 million although of those only 650,000 are registered as refugees by the UN.

According to the UNHCR, more than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011 and another 6.6 million are currently internally displaced.

The UN last week said it noted at least 920,000 displacements since the beginning of the year, the highest in that time frame in Syria's war.

Aid groups have warned that heightened anti-refugee rhetoric and quieting battlefronts in Syria could lead government to force refugees out.

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