The Lebanese government’s reaction to the United Nations Higher Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) cannot go unnoticed, under the repercussions of the Syrian refugees’ presence on the Lebanese territory. The Lebanese Foreign Ministry, the major defendant in the file, is today stuck in a position that triggered it to point the finger of blame at an international organization accusing it of “intimidating” Syrian refugees relating to the return to Syria.
Lately, the escalation tempo of the Syrian refugees’ file in Lebanon has sped up, following Gebran Bassil’s, the Lebanese Foreign Minister, decision to freeze the renewal of the UNHCR’s employees’ residency permits, the organization that offers its services to about a million Syrians, who took refugee in Lebanon since 2011, amidst the difficulty to predict the decision’s impact on refugees themselves.
Bassil’s Decision is a “Message” to Refugees
Several procedures have lately appeared in the frame of “facilitating” the Syrian people’s return to what the official narrative refer to as “safe” areas in Syria; the most controversial of these procedures is coordination with the government of the Syrian regime to plan for the refugees’ return and to open the door for applying for a “voluntary” return in the Lebanese municipalities. However, these proceedings are met with “counter” procedures on the part of the refugees’ Commission, that are said to have aborted the Lebanese government’s efforts. This happened when UN’s commission has forwarded questions to refugees, through which it enticed the refugees against the return from the perspective of the Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
The questions, mainly addressing how aware the Syrian refugees of the risks of the return, infuriated the Minister Bassil, who on June 8 has issued the above-mentioned decision, which states that the refugees’ commission’s employees’ residency permits would not be renewed, meaning that they will be deported after the current permit ends.
On its part, the UN Commission criticized the decision through its representative in Lebanon Mireille Girard, who said that “19 employees were affected by the frozen residency permit, calling on the government to rescind its decision.”
Nasser Yassin, Lebanese human rights specialist and the Head of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University in Beirut, said that the decision would not directly affect Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as it first of all aims to undermine the Commission’s activity and to subject it to governmental pressure.
In his interview with Enab Baladi, Yassin added that the decision’s repercussions on Syrian refugees are manifestd in imposing stress on them relating to the return and sending them a message that the Lebanese government is “not satisfied” with the international organization’s response to the Syrian refugees’ crisis and that it would not want any thing of the international community but the finalization of the Syrian refugees’ file by sending them back to their country.
According to Nasser Yassin, Minister Jebran Bassil is trying to turn the Syrian people’s return into a part of the UN Commission’s responsibility through his decision as to give it a legal shape, pointing out that the return is not for the Commission to decide and is a complicated matter that needs an international discussion, and cannot be a subject to a government’s minister’s request.
“Routine” Questions: Are They Legal?
The Refugee Commission has proposed a number of questions to the Syrian refugees who “wish” to leave Lebanon back to Syria; the questions were interpreted in two different, contradictory, manners. The first perspective to the question is the Lebanese government’s, which classified them as “intimidating” and leading to the refugees’ giving up on the idea of the return; the second perspective belongs to human rights specialists, who consider that the questions are necessary as to ensure the refugees’ safety and security, and to know if their return wish is due to imposed pressure.
Enab Baladi managed to get hold of the varying patterns of the proposed questions, which fundamentally took the following form: “Do you believe that you will be safe if you are back to your country? Do you have a place to stay in? Will you return to your city or to a different one? Are you aware that you might be arrested or recruited for mandatory service? Are you aware that your life might be endangered in Syria?”
The Syrian lawyer Sabah Halaq, a member of the Syrian Women Association (SWA), told Enab Baladi that these questions are both “legal and lawful” and are a part and parcel of UN’s Commission’s duties towards refugees.
In her interview with Enab Baladi, Halaq pointed out to the fact that they are routine questions that the Commission direct to refugees around the world, upon expressing the wish to return to their countries that are yet enduring conflicts, adding that the questions were not Syrian refugees’ specific and did not target the Lebanese government.
On his turn, Nasser Yassin said that the Commission does not prevent any refugee from going back to his or her country, but its part of its duties to make sure that the return is voluntary, pointing out that these questions are a necessity at this stage to guarantee the refugees’ safety, especially since UN cannot provide a proof of the security conditions in Syria, as it does not possess freedom of movement in the areas under the Syrian regime’s control.
“Voluntary return necessitates that the government of the Syrian regime paves the way for international organizations to follow up the refugees’ affairs and to ensure their safety,” he added.
Concerning the effect of these questions, the lawyer Sabah Halaq said that they cannot affect the Syrian people’s return decision, for they have already made up their minds and got prepared to undertake the journey after asking their relatives about the security situation in Syria.
The “Voluntary” Return’s Proceedings
The coordination between the Lebanese government and the government of the Syrian regime has triggered a massive wave of criticism, since several civil organizations consider Syria as so far “insecure,” in spite of which portions of refugees have lately been prepared to be sent back to Syria under the supervision of the Lebanese General Security Directorate.
The process began two months ago, when the Lebanese municipalities announced opening the door for the people whishing to return to register their names. The first portion of refugees arrived at Beit Jinn in the southern countryside of Damascus on April 4, 2018, on board of buses that carried 500 refugees, while another portion is being prepared to enter Syria after Eid al-Fitr, consisting of more than three thousand refugees.
The Lawyer Halaq told Enab Baladi that the process starts with registering names at the mayors’ offices in the Lebanese municipalities, who in turn file these names to the General Directorate of General Security, which then transfers them to the government of the Syrian regime, as to examine the security conditions of the people desiring to return and give them a permit. The approved people will be transported from Lebanon to Syria on board of buses provided by the government of the Syrian regime
The lawyer pointed out that according to the security check up, the Syrian regime has refused the return of four families to al-Zabadani, rural Damascus, for it would not allow the return of the wanted people, army dissidents or gunmen, adding that “the returnees to Syria are practically elderly, children and women.”
Halaq said that this mechanism would cover a slight portion of Syrians in Lebanon, since most of the refugees are prosecuted and wanted by the Syrian regime and that the majority comes from areas that are not yet ready to house people after being controlled by the Syrian regime.
About the return, the human rights specialist Nasser Yassin said that on the surface it appears as a voluntary decision, but in terms of content it is a “forced” return and due to applied pressure.