Frozen bodies of refugee Syrian families, who were trying to sneak through the Syrian-Lebanese borders, have been discovered at the roadside..A scene presents death in its ugliest manifestations and a case that shocked the public opinion, which brought the issue of smuggling Syrian people through illegal crossings at the Lebanese borders, near the Masnaa border point that links Damascus with Beqaa.
At 1500-meter altitude between mountains, amidst snow storms and cold weather, they forced their way to be killed by frost and strict Lebanese procedures that did not stop smugglers from carrying on their work.
Facing the tragedy, many questions erupted, as whom bears the responsibility? And what are the proposed solutions?
Sixteen frozen bodies, including those of children, were discovered in al-Suwairi mountain by the Lebanese authorities; the police failed to identify some of the bodies’ identities, for they had no identity documents.
Medical sources stated that death resulted from a sudden cardiac arrest due to stress and frozen arteries.
According to Lebanese media outlets, the victims, two days before their death, crossed the Syrian General Security at Jdeidat Yabous in a legal manner that has been identified by the Lebanese exit stamps they carried.
Upon reaching the Lebanese General Security and because they failed to provide the demanded fees of Syrian passengers, $2000, they turned into an easy target for the Lebanese smugglers.
After the bodies’ discovery, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Spokeswoman, Liza Abu Khaled, said that Commissioner has no detailed information about whether the victims are registered as refugees or they have crossed the borders to Syria and then tried to sneak back, for the Lebanese State does not allow the refugee who went back to Syria to return to Lebanon.
She added that the Commissioner have already spotted surreptitious entry cases to Lebanon; and the reasons for this method varied, including a family reunion.
What Helped the Spread of Smuggling Networks?
Every now and then, the Lebanese media publishes a report about arresting human trafficking networks, the last of which was on 30 January 2018, for the Division of Information in the town of al-Suwairi reported that they managed to capture a human trafficking network between Syria and Lebanon.
The network consists of M. B. (a Syrian national born in 1995), B. A. (a Syrian national born in 1998), H. J. (a Syrian national born in 1999), who have all been handed over to the concerned authorities.
The investigations discovered that the networks consist of Syrian and Lebanese nationals, who resort to shepherds who know the rugged mountain roads and their conditions under different climates.
As for the expenses they demand, they vary according to the person’s security situation and if he or she has official documents; the expense also depends on age.
When Did the Trafficking Processes Begin?
The trafficking processes, between Syria and Lebanon, began after 2011, and it was limited to fuel, food commodities and medicines before that.
In 2012, the smuggling operations through the routes of the al-Beqaa mountain, started to increase with every new restriction at the border crossings.
This file, in 2015, turned into a massive problem for Lebanon after they classified the smuggling operations, especially those organized by specialized networks, under “human trafficking.”
How Does Smuggling Works?
Smugglers usually work late in the night. As for the distance, the people who are surreptitiously trying to enter have to walk for four of five hours in the ragged routes.
Smugglers or the people being smuggled rarely use devices to protect themselves from the harsh natural conditions, which risk increase in the winter due to snow accumulation.
Smugglers give up on the people who cannot bear these conditions; they leave them to continue the journey. As for those who mange to survive, they suffer the risk of the landmines, which the Lebanese army have planted in the area.
Mohammad, a Syrian activist, works in the area and is informed of its geography, told Enab Baladi, that the former route used to pass in the mountains that are near to the border Masnaa Point. However, after the Lebanese security forces have intensified the security procedures at the borders, six months ago, the smugglers moved to take farther routes, in a mountain close to the town of al-Suwairi, in the Beqaa.
He added that the route is used for going and returning, but most of the people head to Syria not the other way around. The used to meet at a point in the Lebanese village of Majdal Anjar, pointing out that with the security restrictions, a number of the people who were going to Syria, got shot by the Lebanese Security forces.
He indicated that the smugglers are mostly Lebanese nationals, and it seems that they have been cooperating with the Lebanese forces before the restrictions. The Lebanese forces used to overlook the route and the journey’s cost was low; it did not exceed the 50 dollars.
The people who left Syria and wish to get back are either those who do not have a residence permit, afraid to lose their allocated share of UN’s aid, or those who went to Syria to get medical treatment to later go back to Lebanon.
Lebanon Isn’t an Easy target…
The “General Directorate of General Lebanese Security” has issued new standards that are stricter in their emphasis than the previous demands concerning the organization of Syrians’ entry to Lebanon and their life there.
A statement that the Directorate issued on 10 January 2018 states that Syrian nationals cannot enter Lebanon for shopping; their entry was limited to education, treatment, work, traveling and other ends.
Entering Lebanon for tourism also has its on terms and conditions, for Syrians cannot be admitted, in this case, unless they have two thousand dollars, knowing that the previously demanded sum was one thousand dollars only, in addition to a hotel reservation, undamaged identity document, a passport and a family register, if the person wished to bring his or her family along.
In case of work visits, a Syrian national should be a businessperson, investor, unionist, embassy employee or a diplomate, employee in the Syrian public sector, a military officer or a man of religion.
The Syrians who would travel through Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport, are given a permission to enter Lebanon and stay there for 48 hours, on the condition that they have a passport, a ticket and a visa to the country of destination.
The Lebanese General Security allows the entry of Syrian nationals in case they had to review one of the foreign embassies, for a duration that does not exceed 48 hours, after presenting any document that prove this by the embassy.
The Lebanese authorities started imposing restrictions on the entry of Syrians to its territory in January 2015, as a result for the unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees. Entry conditions have been set, in addition to a duration for the stay in Lebanon that correspond to the visit’s nature.
The governmental statistics indicate that Lebanon has received a million and a half Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, which entered its seventh year.
According to the UNHCER, the numbers of Syrians who are registered as refuges is 997 thousand people only to the end of November 2017.
Stop Smuggling “Riches!”
In addition to humans trafficking, Syrians have been complaining about repercussions of the chaotic state at the borders, for the border line starting with Zeita, al-Aqrabiyah, al-Naeem al-Joubania, Rablah, Haweek, Al-Qusayr and other border villages are wide open, according to what Wheed Yazbek, a member of “Homs Governorate Council,” has posted on his “Facebook” page.
He pointed out that “national riches” are being smuggled to Lebanon, such as fuels, ghost, cows, vegetables and oils, which is leading to shortage in the local markets and a rise in their prices internally. In addition to this, all types of cars are being brought to Syria from Lebanon quota-free and the stolen cars are being smuggled from Syria to Lebanon.
Human Rights Perspective: The Syrian Regime and the Lebanese Government Share the Responsibility
Who bears responsibility for the persisting smuggling operations at the Syrian-Lebanese borders? This is a question that we directed to Lawyer Nabil al-Halabi, the Director of The Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (LIFE).
Al-Halabi pointed out that in the first place the responsibility is the Syrian regime’s, which caused the displacement and the emigration of massive numbers of civilian families, whether internally or cross borders, as well as the smuggling mafias that are making a living out of this phenomenon.
Al-Halabi indicated that these mafias used to cooperate with some of the Lebanese security and the borders Syrian security members to facilitate their transboundary illegal work and activities, and that this mafias have changed their work from smuggling commodities between the countries, a trend that was common prior to the Syrian war, to smuggling weapons and people.
He pointed out that both the Lebanese and the Syrian security recognize these mafias, who bear a massive responsibility because what they are doing is a transboundary crime that falls under “human trafficking.”
Al-Halabi added that the Lebanese government also bears a great responsibility, especially after it decided to close the borders in the face of additional Syrian refugees, even if the government is attributing this to the fact that it did not sign the 1951th Refugees Agreement. However, Lebanon has included the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in its constitution, and it is one of its prominent supporters. Therefore, closing the borders is a violation of the Article 14 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
He explained that the government’s conduct is a violation of the “International Humanitarian Law,” under which Lebanon is obliged to receive the refugees, escaping death, killing, war and suppression, and that it is an indisputable humanitarian duty
Al-Halabi confirmed that Lebanon’s abstinence from opening safe humanitarian crossings before Syrian refugees has turned them into victims for the “humans trafficking” networks.
Syrians without Identity Documents
Since the first hours of emigration towards Lebanon in mid-2011, the Syrian refugees who illegally crossed the borders were received without reservation, and the Lebanese army has helped them reach the safe areas in Lebanon without checking their identity documents, considering the situation an emergency; the army and the Lebanese security used to treat the newcomers in a good manner, according to al-Halabi.
He added that after 2013 and with the political and on ground changes in Syria, a new tendency of victimizing these refugees started to appear, in addition to legal prosecution, especially that their legal status, is somehow fragile, for they have neither identity nor legal documents, to help them get a legal residency in the Lebanese territory.
Even the Syrian dissident soldiers and officers do not have an identity document, due to the generalization issued by the Syrian General Staff of War in October 2011, that stripped them of their Syrian identity documents to prevent the process of dissent, which led to a vulnerable situation at the legal level. Today, in Lebanon, these people are liable to arrest under raids or at passing an emergency checkpoint, let it be security or a military one.
Al-Halabi assured that many of these Syrians, who do not have legal documents, are being arrested, tortured and cruelly beaten, if the army is involved in a battle or a crucial security operation; accusations are attached to Syrian refugees arbitrarily, such as affiliation with “terrorist” groups or illegal armed factions.
Wadah al-Asmar, the Director of the “Lebanese Center for Human Rights,” for his part, stressed that the Syrian refugees who entered Lebanon after 2015 are being harassed for not having identity documents; they are also living in a state of instability and insecurity, for they are detained for three or four days, to be released with an order to leave Lebanon, an order that is not implemented.
Al-Asmar pointed that human rights organizations are observing the situation closely, to prevent deportation operations to Syria, pointing out that, to the day, none of the Syrian refugees has been deported.
As for reuniting families with refugees who are working in Lebanon, al-Asmar said that, unfortunately, the principle of reunion with the family does not exist in the Lebanese law. In addition to this, Lebanon has never signed any agreement in relation to this, so it is difficult for Syrian or foreign workers, within the fields they are allowed to function in, to reunite with their families, pointing out that the reunion law does not seriously exist in all the Arab countries.
The Minister of Refugees Affairs: Lebanon is Overloaded
We directed a question concerning the party that bears the responsibility for the smuggling operations and their consequences to the Lebanese Minister of Refugees Affairs, Moeen al-Marabi, who answered that it is important to clarify that the Syrian regime is refusing to demarcate the borders between Syria and Lebanon and that it is the most
difficult for the military forces in any country to permanently terminate the smuggling phenomenon.
He added that “the security forces are making a commendable effort in the border areas to control the situation according to the available resources, so it is hard to hold them accountable for the happening violations. It is important to mention that they have rescued refugees many times while they could not on other times, the thing that happened in the last tragedy of al-Suwairi, for the vision was absolutely lacking due to the snow storm, in which the smugglers have indulged the refugees to get rid of them as it appears.”
Al-Marabi holds the Syrian regime as accountable for forcing civilians to escape its crimes and violations and the smuggling mafias that are making a trade of people’s lives, selling them illusions and false promises and for the death of the Syrian refugees who entered Lebanon in an illegal manner after the smugglers have abandoned them.
Lebanese Government’s Procedures
As for the procedures that the Lebanese Government has been underthinking to stop the human trafficking phenomenon or to at least limit it between Syria and Lebanon, al-Marabi said that “the Security forces, on top of which is the Lebanese army are trying with full power, and in the shadow of their modest resources, to work hard to stop the phenomenon or at least to limit it as much as possible.”
He declared that border regiments have been created to protect the country of all forms of trafficking, but he confirmed that no country around the world can place a soldier at each thirty meters of the borders to control them in a strict manner.
Locking the Borders
Answering our question about if the neighboring countries have the right to lock their borders in the face of Syrian refugees under the current circumstances of war, al-Marabi said: “Lebanon has been overloaded and has opened its doors and welcomed refugees since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011.”
He added: “with pride, I was among the first who welcomed our siblings of the Syrian refugees, but after seven years of the crisis, Lebanon, with its current economic situation, the lack of infrastructure, and basic livelihood means, in addition to the constipation of the international community towards the refugees in Lebanon, cannot take more, for the situation has reached the point of the inability to afford water and food.”
According to al-Marabi, opening the borders completely would drown the Lebanese incubator with all the people it is holding, which forced the Lebanese Government to choose the least harmful option. According to this, “closing the door in front of the entry of more people would save the million and half refugees that are already in Lebanon, which are suffering from the shortage of international aid, due to the exhaustion of the donors and the disappearance of their support.”
The Lebanese Minister considered the tragedy of the Syrian refugee who burnt himself in Tripoli as a proof for what the Syrians started to suffer, wishing that similar incidents would not be repeated, in case the aid allocated to poorer and weakest refugees is not increased.
Al-Marabi pointed out that Lebanon, which suffers from a debt of $ 80 billion and very poor economic growth, has not built a wall to prevent refugees from entering it. It has hosted half its population of Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
He called on the rich countries to shoulder their responsibilities and duties towards the displaced, and the participation of Syria’s neighboring countries in sharing the burden in an equitable manner, which protects the dignity of the refugees and preserves the stability of the host communities, especially in the remote areas that host the vast majority of refugees, where infrastructure is almost absent.
Resolving the “Reunion” Cause
As for the options available to the Syrian worker in Lebanon to reunite his family, al-Marabi said that the Syrians today are in a position where they cannot be envied, mentioning, as an example, what the Syrian refugees are facing in Germany, which economy is classified as one of the strongest around the world, in relation to the reunion issue.
The Lebanese Minister deemed that only stopping the war in Syria would put an end to the tragedy, attributing the ethical responsibility to aid Syrian refugees to those he called “the countries of the free world,” as to preserve the stability of the host communities and to set up a map for the refugees’ return, as well as reconstructing their countries, which war has torn apart. This is liable to protect the identity of the refugees and reunify the Syrian families who have been scattered across the universe, as he said.
Facilities for Getting Legal Documents
Concerning the destiny of the Syrian nationals who have entered Lebanon in an illegal manner and who do not have identity documents, the Lebanese Minister declared that the “Director-General of General Security” has issued a number of decrees and has came up with many procedures to help refugees in Lebanon get legal documents, and that it is renewing the legal deadlines to enable them to settle their situation, in addition to relaxing pre-defined conditions.
He added that “What the Lebanese Government and the Ministry of the Interior have done concerning this must be counted, for they have not forced any of [the refugees] to return.”
He indicated that the “General security” has extended the period of the Syrians’ residency in Lebanon through a number of decrees, the last of which was on 3 January 2018 to 31 February 2018, taking into consideration the fears of the refugees about the need to cross the borders to Syria to change the guarantor; it also allowed for renewing the residency and changing the guarantor without the need to leave for Syria and simplified the departure procedures for those who entered Lebanon after 4 January 2015 Legally (Tourism – Shopping), and those whose residency in Lebanon has exceeded the legal duration allocated to them since the date of their entry to the Lebanese territory, who were asked to apply only through border centers and department to settle their situation and leave.