GENEVA: The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR hopes the Lebanese foreign ministry will quickly reverse a decision to freeze residency applications the agency has submitted for its staff, its spokesman said on Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil ordered the freeze last week after accusing UNHCR of hindering the return of refugees to Syria by "spreading fear".
Syrian refugees now account for around a quarter of the population of Lebanon - around 1 million are registered with the United Nations. The Lebanese government wants the refugees to start going home; the UN says it's not yet safe for them to return.
Beirut is working with Damascus to arrange the return of thousands of refugees it says want to go back to Syria, a top Lebanese official said last month.
"We are very concerned about the freezing issuing of residence permits to international staff in Lebanon," UNHCR spokesman Andre Mahecic said during a briefing in Geneva. "We hope that the decision of the foreign ministry will be reversed without delay."
Lebanese President Michel Aoun has been calling for Syrian refugees to return to areas of the country he has described as secure. Aoun says this should happen before a final political solution to the seven-year-long war.
A conference on Syria hosted by the European Union and co-chaired by the United Nations in April said conditions remained unsafe.
"We do not oppose or discourage people returning, when they return based on their own decision and based on informed choice," Mahecic said.
"It is the reality that some people are returning. They are making their decision to go back," Mahecic said. "We have also in that regard ramped up our assistance inside Syria where we can to be able to support those," he said.
But fighting in Syria had escalated in a number of areas in the past months, he said, and "given the overall situation, we do not believe conditions are conducive to returns".
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)