Khaled al-Jeratli | Muhammed Fansa | Yamen Moghrabi
Abdulrahman al-Ahmad lives in constant fear of living in Lebanon as the Syrian media activist feels not protected by the laws of a country “wants to forcibly return Syrians to their slaughter.”
Al-Ahmad, who hails from the southern Daraa governorate and fled from it a year ago to save his life from the regime’s security services and the almost daily assassinations in his area, told Enab Baladi that he faced fears no less than the previous ones when he arrived in the neighboring country. It is a general condition suffered by a large segment of Syrians in Lebanon, he adds.
Despite the internal political differences and partisan divisions in Lebanon, and the association of some parties with alliances with the Syrian regime and the hostility of others against it, most Lebanese parties agreed on a discourse pushing for the return of Syrians and to Syria in particular, which affected the lives of refugees in the country, and the matter was reflected in a clear increase in the level of hate speech against the Syrians.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with Lebanese politicians and experts the reasons and the ground for the Lebanese insistence on deporting Syrians to regime-held areas without securing alternative proposals that lead to their survival, as is the case in other countries.
July 2022 witnessed an escalation against Syrian refugees in Lebanon on more than one level, beginning with the statements of Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced, on the 4th of the same month when he told The Associated Press that “We (Lebanon) are serious about implementing this plan and we hope to do so within months,” adding, “This is a humane, honorable, patriotic and economic plan that is necessary for Lebanon.” The Lebanese government’s plan would entail sending back 15,000 Syrian refugees every month
Charafeddine also said, during his visit to Baabda Palace and his meeting with former Lebanese President Michel Aoun, that “it is completely unacceptable that the displaced Syrians not return to their country after the war ended and it became safe.”
With the passage of time, the proposed plan was halted, and it returned to the agenda at a later time in an unannounced manner, but its impact on the lives of the Syrians continues, especially since Lebanese politicians do not stop talking about the return of the Syrians.
The politician and former member of the Lebanese Parliament, Mustafa Alloush, told Enab Baladi that the most important thing about the return of Syrians to their country is that it is one of their rights. However, Lebanon’s political situation pushes any local issue into the corridors of political competition, tensions, and accusations.
Alloush added that the nature of the Lebanese political competition on all issues resulted in pushing the Syrian refugee file to the borders and deportations that “almost were racist.”
The continuous demands of Lebanese politicians to deport the Syrians without a clear plan carry with it a lot of “populism,” according to Alloush, especially since those working in Lebanese politics are fully aware that any progress in the file of the return of refugees is linked to international understandings and United Nations resolutions.
Charbel Saad, a member of the Lebanese Parliament representing the Lebanese Forces Party, told Enab Baladi that “Lebanon has fulfilled, from the beginning, all its moral and humanitarian duties with regard to the Syrian refugee file.” However, what made matters more complicated was the Lebanese government’s random handling of the refugee file.
He added that the “Forces” party was calling, with the beginning of the Syrian refugees in the country, to organize their presence, set up camps for them, and count their numbers completely to distinguish between refugees, tourists, and workers, as not all Syrians came to Lebanon for the same purpose.
With the passage of more than 12 years since the first Syrian sought refuge in Lebanon, according to Saad, and the cessation of fighting in Syria, it is possible to consider the case of their return to Syria, each to the region that represents him, as the opposition can go to the opposition areas, and the supporter can do the same.
The Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR) documented, from the beginning of last April until May 16, that the Lebanese army “arbitrarily” arrested 808 refugees, including 17 refugees with legal residency papers, 13 women, 24 minors, and two members of the LGBTQ community, and some of them were subjected to beatings, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by members of the Lebanese army.
The authorities have forcibly deported no less than 336 of the arrested refugees outside the Lebanese borders, including 12 refugees with legal residency papers, 13 women, 22 minors, and two members of the LGBTQ community.
Access Center for Human Rights
Suhaib Abdo, a Syrian human rights activist residing in Lebanon, told Enab Baladi that Article 31 of the Lebanese Foreigners Law stipulates that a political refugee should be deported from the country to a third country if his deportation is inevitable and that he should not be returned to the country from which he fled or to a country he fears for his life or liberty.
Thus, insisting on returning Syrians to Syria is a violation of local Lebanese law, before it is a violation of any international human rights law.
In this regard, Lebanese politician Charbel Saad considered that what Lebanon is asking for today is real statistics on the distribution of Syrians in Lebanon, taking into account the nature and reasons for the person’s residence in Lebanon.
This is what the Lebanese government has tried over the past years to achieve, but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon (UNHCR) continues to refuse to provide government agencies with the information it has on Syrians, he adds.
The law cannot allow a political refugee or one who faces a threat to his life to be deported, but the random presence of refugees in Lebanon formed a trend in Lebanese politics, Saad asserted.
This trend provides that all Syrians must return to where they came from, given that they visit Syria from time to time, and participate in the presidential elections through the regime’s embassy in Lebanon, noting that this view is not accurate in general, as not everyone participated in the elections, and not everyone came to Lebanon for the purpose of work or tourism or to escape bad economic conditions, according to Saad.
The Lebanese parliamentarian believes that out of the nearly two million Syrians in the country, the number of political refugees does not exceed 100,000, while hundreds of thousands of job seekers, supporters of the Syrian regime, and residents without identification papers live in Lebanese cities.
There are conflicting numbers and terminology when talking about the file of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as there is no clear ground on which Lebanese officials rely in this regard, which made the number of Syrians in Lebanon between three different statistics, without even agreeing on the name of their continuous presence for years, so that Lebanon does not find itself facing additional obligations.
During October 2022, the former Lebanese General Security Director, Abbas Ibrahim, presented the latest statistics on the number of Syrians in Lebanon and the largest at the same time.
According to Ibrahim, there are 2,080,000 “displaced” Syrians in Lebanon, which is far from the number put forward by former Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
While the Lebanese government officially talks about the millions of Syrians in the country, a report issued by the UNHCR counted the presence of only about 805,000 Syrian refugees in the country.
Politicized media discourse
The discourse of most of the Lebanese media is not different from that of the political parties, especially since many of the media outlets are linked to these parties, close to them, receive support, or intersect with ideological and political ideas.
This discourse directed by the media to society has a great social impact, specifically on the social relations of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and this discourse often leads to harassment of children and adults alike, according to journalist Mohanad Hage Ali.
He pointed out to Enab Baladi the different levels of influence of the discourse of the media and the popular discourse against the Syrian refugees, as we find its level less effective in the border areas due to the presence of societal overlap as a result of historical relations, marriage, and others.
On the other hand, a segment of those calling for the deportation of Syrian refugees from Lebanon insists that the process be carried out towards Syria, regardless of whether the destination is areas controlled by the Syrian regime or others, and without regard to the future of these refugees or the risks they may be exposed to, including arbitrary detention, or enforced disappearance, and other human rights violations.
Hage Ali links the destination to Syria to two points. The first is related to the fact that Syria is the mother country of the refugees. The second is the increase in reports that talk about seasonal visits by Syrians to the regime-held areas, specifically through illegal crossings. This is what the Lebanese parliamentarians who spoke to Enab Baladi agreed with.
Syrian journalist Nedal Maalouf told Enab Baladi that an “international will” has become clear regarding the return of Syrian refugees to their countries, particularly from neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq), as the recent political moves revolve around this framework.
On May 22, the League of Arab States published the decisions of the 32nd summit held in Saudi Jeddah city.
The 109-page decisions published on the Arab League’s official website contained paragraphs specific to Syria, including the file of Syrian refugees and their return, terrorism, foreign forces, the Constitutional Committee, national reconciliation, and UN Resolution 2254.
For his part, Maalouf believes that the return of Syrian refugees to Syria, in particular, is linked to the existence of a political solution, which is harmful to the regime.
He considered that Washington’s partners and the European Union in the region are moving according to international plans that constitute pressure, and therefore the coincidence of pressure in the refugee file, in conjunction with regional pressures, means that there is a goal related to this file.
Maalouf added that despite Lebanon’s specificity, racism against Syrians cannot be considered the main reason for the recent discourse. This matter does not negate racism resulting from reasons related to the Syrian presence in Lebanon and the negative effects it left behind, but it is not the main starting point.
The Syrian army entered Lebanon as part of the “Arab Deterrence Forces” in 1976 and did not leave until 2005, after the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, and the launch of what was known as the Cedar Revolution.
The days of the Syrian army’s presence witnessed the suppression of freedoms, the arrest, and torture of opposition journalists under the pretext of inciting sectarian strife, defaming the Syrian army, and contacting the Israeli enemy.
The engineer of this stage was Major General Jamil al-Sayyed, then Director General of the Lebanese General Security, who was following the files of the journalists and chasing them in an attempt to intimidate them, the most prominent of whom was the journalist Samir Kassir.
Lebanese columnist Alia Mansour, in an interview with Enab Baladi, referred to the same issue and considered that there is a clear confusion between Syrian refugees and Syrians working in Lebanon.
She said that Syrian workers have been present in Lebanon even before 2011, but rather since the fifties of the 20th century, and their presence is not new, and this confusion comes because of the Lebanese government.
The Lebanese Minister of Labor, Mustafa Bayram, announced on April 26 that 37,000 Syrians visited their country during the recent Eid al-Fitr holiday, which denies the character of displacement, according to him.
Mansour believed that the current form of the adopted discourse is due to the campaigns launched by the Lebanese government and politicians, who are in harmony with the discourse of Bashar al-Assad himself.
Journalist Mansour indicated that al-Assad himself does not want the Syrian refugees to return to their cities and villages, and a large part of Lebanese politicians agree with his speech to obtain funds, although this matter will not be easy, given that reconstruction is linked to US and European sanctions on the Syrian regime.
Regarding the systematic campaigns carried out by the Lebanese governments, Mansour said that they come with every Lebanese political event, and currently, there is the election of a president for the republic.
Since the end of President Aoun’s term in 2022, Lebanon has been living in a presidential vacuum, and Lebanese politicians have not succeeded in agreeing on a president until the moment this file was published.
The most prominent candidate is the leader of the Marada Movement, Suleiman Franjieh, who seems to have the support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian regime as well.
Franjieh previously said on Twitter on April 26 that he possesses what many do not possess, which is the confidence of Hezbollah and al-Assad, and with them, he can accomplish what others cannot achieve.
Franjieh’s statements can be linked to the file of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the process of deporting them to Syria in particular, according to journalist Mansour.
Mansour spoke about the link between the Lebanese political and economic conditions and the process of returning refugees to Syria, as Lebanon hosts the largest proportion of refugees in relation to the global population.
This matter put pressure on Lebanon, of course, but it cannot also be blamed on the refugees but on the Lebanese government, which has failed to develop plans to solve this problem since 2011, according to Mansour.
Who benefits from fueling racism?
In light of the multiplicity of political parties in Lebanon and the linkage of their interests with the interests of other countries, their discourse on the Syrian refugee file does not necessarily reflect the position of the Lebanese street or the overall political orientation in the country, according to former parliamentarian Mustafa Alloush.
Alloush considered that whoever relies on the presence of a government in Lebanon, which may issue government decisions or procedures within the framework of protecting or deporting refugees, is “exaggerating his estimates,” noting that there are two states in Lebanon, one that is “not a state,” and another parallel to it called “Hezbollah.”
He said that the political parties in Lebanon, since the beginning of the economic crisis there, have been trying to blame the widespread mistakes in Lebanese politics, whether in terms of services or economics, for the Syrians, which are the direct reasons that generalized racism against the Syrian refugees and exported them as Lebanon’s major problem.
In parallel with the attempts of Lebanese politicians to search for a scapegoat for the failure of their administration of the country, Lebanon was looking for someone to blame for this failure on the populist level, according to Alloush.
Lebanese parliamentarian Charbel Saad believes in this regard that the Syrian regime played a role in fueling racism against Syrians in Lebanon and other countries as well, especially since it did not express any desire to return them to the country from which they fled, which allows the matter to be seen as that his government is working on what he called “regional, ethnic or sectarian cleansing.”
Saad pointed out that the regime prefers to keep the Syrians in neighboring countries as a pressure card against it, and Lebanon is the best proof of that.
The plan, according to which the Lebanese Forces party prefers to deal with the refugee file, may ease the pressure of the regime on Lebanon with the refugee file, especially since the Lebanese government was able to identify residents in the country as refugees, fugitives from the regime, or others who came to the country to elect the head of the regime, Bashar al-Assad at the embassy in Lebanon, according to Saad.
Human rights activist Suhaib Abdo told Enab Baladi that the period of the presidential elections in Syria, which took place in May 2021, left an impression on the Lebanese street that the Syrians are loyal to al-Assad, given that those who elected the regime do not exceed hundreds, and most of them came from the Jabal Mohsen region, which is considered one of the main strongholds of the regime in Lebanon.
He added, “If we assume that one person needs a minute to participate in the elections, how many Syrians can participate in the elections over the course of eight or nine hours in one place?”
Lebanese political researcher Dr. Khaled al-Ezzi told Enab Baladi that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is being exploited as a blackmail card by Lebanese politicians on the one hand and the Syrian regime on the other.
Lebanese politicians blackmail the international community through their speeches calling for the return of Syrians to Syria despite their knowledge of the legitimacy of their presence through the United Nations. They also blackmail the Europeans by allowing “death boats” laden with refugees to leave the Lebanese coast, according to al-Ezzi.
In turn, the regime is blackmailing the Lebanese by not providing the conditions for their return, given that the file of the return of the Syrians has become a Lebanese government demand, and it is also exploiting other Arab countries by presenting the file of reconstruction in exchange for accepting the return of the refugees, according to the Lebanese researcher.
Ayman Soussan, regime’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, said on May 18 that “The return of the displaced has requirements, and the Arabs should provide assistance in order to provide the infrastructure and services for their return,” as other officials reported.
Hezbollah is considered mainly responsible for the presence of refugees in Lebanon from areas in the central Homs region and the Qalamoun region on the Lebanese border, where its forces invested and gained influence and concentration after its military intervention with the regime forces, according to al-Ezzi, who stated that no politician dared to propose Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria to facilitate the return of refugees.
“Cause of Lebanese failure”
The state of worry and tension has accompanied the Syrian refugees for several years, especially after the 2020 Beirut port explosion, when the discourse of Lebanese politicians took an upward turn in inflaming the Lebanese street by holding the Syrian refugees responsible for the collapse of the economic and living situation in the country.
Al-Ezzi attributed “fanaticism” against refugees to three reasons, the first of which is the deteriorating economic situation that Lebanon has reached, with the absence of Lebanese or international statistics on the poverty rate in the country, while the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) estimated that 74% of population living on less than $14 per day in 2021.
The academic researcher attributed the second reason to the negative practices of some Syrians in the country, such as theft, drug promotion, and other crimes, and then their escape from Lebanon without punishment through the smuggling corridors with Syria due to the lack of security, which caused an adverse reaction among the Lebanese street towards the refugees.
Syrian refugees who oppose the regime in Lebanon or who evade compulsory military service fear arrest if they enter Syria.
Organizations concerned with the protection and advocacy of the rights of Syrian refugees in Lebanon monitor the violations committed by the Lebanese authorities against refugees and try to document as many of them as possible within a specific documentation methodology and to issue periodic reports with the aim of increasing pressure on the Lebanese authorities to stop the violations.
Executive Director of the Access Center for Human Rights
“If I had the choice between deportation to Syria or traveling by sea to Europe, I would choose the sea even if I knew that I would drown before reaching my destination.”
This was the answer of Mohammad, 36, who refused to reveal his full name for security reasons when asked: “Do you prefer to return to the areas of the regime or take refuge in Europe via death boats,” coinciding with the recent events regarding the deportation of Syrians from Lebanon.
Mohammad, who has resided in the Arsal region of Lebanon for nine years, coming from the northern city of Aleppo to escape compulsory military service, did not hide his constant concern that he would be arrested by the Lebanese forces, despite having legal papers, after deporting a number of Syrian refugees who have a legal status similar to his condition and from his region.
Mohammad’s interview with Enab Baladi centered on his being unable to leave his place of residence except in necessary cases, with constant caution and avoiding temporary security checkpoints that might be suddenly set up on any road.
Amnesty International documented at least four cases in which the Syrian regime forces arrested Syrians after deporting them from Lebanon, in addition to separate cases of forced conscription.
According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the climate of fear affects Syrian refugees making emergency medical referrals to hospitals. “A patient refused to be referred to the hospital despite his urgent need for medical care, and this is due in particular to his fear of deportation,” said Marcelo Fernandez, general coordinator of MSF in Lebanon, especially since he is not registered (in the UNHCR).
It is extremely alarming to see the army deciding the fate of refugees without respecting due process or allowing those facing deportation to challenge their removal in court or seek protection. No refugee should be sent back to a place where their life will be at risk.
Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Who bears responsibility for the economic crisis?
Officials in Lebanon talk about the deterioration of the economic situation and the need for funds from donors under the pretext of facing the Syrian “displacement costs” based on statements that contradict the UN statements.
Last January, the Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Committee of the Lebanese Parliament presented statistics and data on Syrian refugees in the framework of a session in the Parliament, which was attended by 19 ambassadors from European countries and countries concerned with the Syrian file.
The committee held the Syrian refugees responsible for the poor economic situation that Lebanon suffers from, without mentioning other reasons, as it stated that the unemployment rate in Lebanon reached 40% “because of the Syrian labor force, and the opening of competing small enterprises that do not pay taxes.”
The head of the committee and the parliamentary representative, Fadi Alama, presented statistics stating that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is 2,082,000, which contradicts the statistics of international bodies.
The committee justified this discrepancy with the existence of illegal crossings and “their use by the displaced in order to continue benefiting from the assistance provided to them monthly.”
Moayad al-Bunni, a political and economic analyst at the COAR Global research center, told Enab Baladi that in the face of the anger of the Lebanese street, which is becoming increasingly poor and in need, the ruling class finds the vulnerable Syrian refugees a “hanger” on which to hang the effects of corruption, financial and economic mismanagement, and political failure.
Al-Bunni said that the Lebanese state’s institutions and services were in decline due to “rampant corruption and mismanagement,” and their collapse was only a factor of time.
Concerning the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, al-Bunni believes that it has lifted the lid on the fragility and weakness of the Lebanese state’s institutions, services, and infrastructure, which may have been more capable of “disguise.” However, the corruption of the ruling class in Lebanon is older than the presence of the refugees and has a deeper impact on the ongoing collapse.
The economic analyst presented several examples of the causes of the economic collapse in Lebanon, all of which are not actually related to the presence of refugees, such as the Lebanese banking model, financial mismanagement by the Central Bank of Lebanon, and “rampant corruption” in state institutions.
Examples also include the domination of Hezbollah over the Lebanese state and its laws, the control of the “princes of sects” through their patronage networks over aspects of life in Lebanon, and the Beirut port explosion, in which more than 200 people were killed, and caused losses amounting to $15 billion and pushed the Lebanese economic collapse steps forward.
The political analyst at the COAR Global Center believes that Lebanon is currently facing a “deep crisis” in its political and economic composition, threatening the power of the ruling class and its ability to continue to “absorb” the country’s resources under cover of “sectarian democracy,” and the crisis of the emergence of a state within the state that seeks to preserve on the current weak structure in order to continue to control it.
The Lebanese street rejects this political structure, which has emerged with the country’s crises through the street movement over the past years, the latest of which was in 2019, when demonstrators raised the slogan “All of them means all of them,” pointing fingers at “the princes of the sects and the ruling class.”
The economic advisor predicted that with the intensification of the Lebanese crisis affecting livelihoods, many Lebanese will be affected by what the ruling class is promoting to cover up its corrupting role.
This is a cause for concern about security and stability in Lebanon, as the next impact will be mainly on the country’s vulnerable groups, including the Syrian refugees, al-Bunni concluded.
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