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UN delays dual-currency cash help to refugees in crisis-hit Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows tents at a camp for Syrian refugees in Ibl al-Saqi

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United Nations has delayed a decision to give Syrian refugees in Lebanon cash help partly in U.S. dollars after objections from senior Lebanese officials that this could exacerbate tensions with hard-pressed locals.

In a statement on Saturday the U.N. said that following Lebanese requests a decision had been made to temporarily pause the use of dollars alongside Lebanese pounds for next month's disbursement of cash assistance to refugees, while discussions continue on the appropriate way to give aid.

Lebanon's local currency has lost more than 98% of its value since an economic meltdown began in 2019, straining both Lebanese families and the around 800,000 Syrians registered with the U.N.'s refugee agency.

The Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon Imran Riza and other U.N. officials had on Tuesday said their agencies would begin distributing aid to refugees in both dollars and Lebanese pounds.

They said the "rapid depreciation" of the pound, fluctuations of the exchange rate, and the logistical challenges of securing large amounts of local currency had made it "impossible for the United Nations and partners to continue to disburse cash assistance only in Lebanese Pounds."

But the same agencies reversed course after meetings on Friday with Lebanon's caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati and social affairs minister Hector Hajjar.

Hajjar had told a press conference his ministry had not been properly informed of the decision to provide aid in dollars, which he said would increase tensions between refugees and Lebanese. A government source said Mikati, too, had not been aware of the "dollarization" of aid.

The U.N.'s reversal comes amid heightened social tensions in Lebanon over the issue of refugees. Officials have said the country can no longer bear to host Syrians as it struggles to cope with its own financial crisis.

The Lebanese army has carried out raids on camps and homes where refugees live. A humanitarian source told Reuters that more than 2,000 have been arrested and more than 1,400 deported to Syria.

Security sources say the army is seeking out Syrians with invalid papers, but relatives of deported Syrians say they face arrest and army conscription once back in their homeland.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Editing by David Holmes)