Lebanon’s plans for Syrian refugee returns criticized for legal violations

Syrian refugees stand near trucks carrying their belongings, preparing to leave Lebanon for Syria, in Arsal in the Beqaa Valley, May 14, 2024 (AFP)

Syrian refugees stand near trucks carrying their belongings, preparing to leave Lebanon for Syria, in Arsal in the Beqaa Valley, May 14, 2024 (AFP)


Enab Baladi – Abeer al-Ayoubi

Lebanon’s plan to repatriate Syrian refugees to their homeland in coordination with Damascus faces legal criticism, at a time when Lebanese politicians of various orientations have agreed on implementing this plan.

The Lebanese authorities resumed organizing what they described as “voluntary returns” for about 330 Syrian refugees through two border crossings in Arsal and the town of al-Qaa, after a stop of about a year and a half, according to the official Lebanese National News Agency (NNA).

The resumption of the deportation of Syrian refugees coincides with the Lebanese Parliamentary Council’s endorsement of the recommendations submitted to the Lebanese government regarding the “Syrian displaced persons file,” which included forming a governmental and security committee to prepare a detailed and timely program for the repatriation of refugees and the handover of prisoners to Damascus.

Coordination with Syrian security services

Lebanon’s Minister of Displaced in the caretaker government, Essam Sharafeddine, confirmed media information about direct communication between the Syrian regime’s government and the Lebanese government concerning the displacement file.

Sharafeddine revealed in a statement to Al-Watan newspaper, close to the Syrian regime, that new lists are currently being worked on, containing the names of about 2,500 Syrian refugees, presented to the Lebanese General Security and will be sent to the Syrian National Security Office for follow-up, noting that a recent call took place between the Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, and the Syrian Prime Minister, Hussein Arnous.

The completion of the refugee return file remains pending an official visit to Damascus, according to the minister, to discuss issues related to the file including civil registration issues, military service, prisoner exchange, border control, and others, he said.

A Lebanese consensus on the file was reported by Addiyar newspaper, which quotes the minister as saying that there is, for the first time, a Lebanese consensus on this file, with recommendations for a committee that will report every three months in this context.

A concern for Lebanon

Participating in the Arab Summit in Manama, on May 16, Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, stated that among the issues concerning Lebanon, the increasing numbers of “displaced” Syrians are putting additional pressure on the challenging economic and social conditions and limited resources of Lebanon.

He added, “Lebanon relies on what has been achieved in terms of progress in the unified Arab stance with Syria’s return to the Arab League in the Jeddah summit last year.”

He also expressed hope for activating the Arab Liaison Committee on Syria to help achieve a shared Arab vision and develop a financing mechanism to secure the resources needed for facilitating and accelerating the return of “displaced” Syrians to their country.

Violation of human rights

In the face of the Lebanese plan, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry reiterated that Syria is still not safe for return, and civilians continue to be affected by the absence of the rule of law and insecurity.

The Executive Director of the Lebanese Institute For Democracy and Human Rights (LIFE), lawyer Nabil Halabi, told Enab Baladi that based on international human rights law and international refugee laws, it is in no way permissible to deport any Syrian refugee to their country.

Moreover, the Lebanese authorities cannot use Lebanon’s non-signature of the 1951 Refugee Convention as a justification for deportation, as this would be considered a serious violation of human rights, violating Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Lebanon prepared and ratified, and Article 3 of the Convention against Torture, which Lebanon also ratified.

Regarding the deportation of Syrians who are not refugees, which may include Syrians loyal to the Syrian regime, Halabi explained that this does not constitute a violation of international law or local law, as long as the reason for deportation relates to violations of residence terms and rules.

“Voluntary return” by force

The return of Syrians from Lebanese territories appears on the surface to be “voluntary”, as authorities call it, but it included coercive measures that forced refugees to make this decision.

The Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR) reported, on April 26, that Lebanese municipalities experienced, on April 19, a campaign to tighten measures against Syrian refugees, with discriminatory municipal decisions and eviction notices issued, leading to the expulsion of refugees and the closure of their businesses.

Refugee camps also faced demolition threats during the same period.

Lebanese officials refer to Syrians as “displaced”, in the absence of official recognition of them as refugees, considering Lebanon a transit country, not a residence for refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), unlike internally displaced persons who have not crossed international borders seeking safety, the international law grants the status of “refugee” to individuals, not local authorities, even if the state authorities have not signed the international refugee convention. The number of Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon is about 789,000.

International human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, have issued warnings against the campaign to return Syrian refugees, with Amnesty stating on the “X” platform on May 13, “Syria is still unsafe, and we have documented what Syrian refugees faced upon return including torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention.”

The organization added that “Lebanon has adopted a series of restrictive policies designed to pressure refugees to return to Syria, including restrictions on residency, work, and movement”, noting that “such restrictions raise concerns about the refugees’ ability to give their free and informed consent.”

Who has the right to stay in Lebanon?

In the days leading up to the new batch of Syrian returns, there was an unprecedented increase in the tightening and restriction of Syrian activities in Lebanon, for reasons officials and deputies framed as “a radical solution to the Syrian displacement issue,” they expressed.

Lawyer Nabil Halabi said, “Every Syrian who has a residence issued by the Lebanese General Security can stay in Lebanon, and if he works, he must obtain the required documents to start work on Lebanese territories.”

However, the reality is that the General Security of Lebanon “deals selectively in applying these standards, with many Syrian refugees opposed to the regime being denied residencies despite being registered with the UNHCR.”

In such cases, “the refugee becomes a violator according to Lebanese law, thus is issued a deportation order, making him confined to his tent or home and unable to move or work”, which is a “significant violation and a contrived infringement by the concerned Lebanese authorities, making the refugee community legally fragile and easier to arrest later for illegal residency.”

The refugee file lacks organization, and Halabi stated that the authorities have not properly categorized Syrians between political refugees, economic migrants, and regular non-Lebanese residents who abide by the law.

Halabi considered “the Lebanese government not serious in addressing this crisis in a scientific and practical way, aiming instead to keep the door open for exploiting crises, either by blaming the entire economic crisis on the refugee file or by blackmailing the European Union to attract more grants and financial aid.”

At the same time, we must not overlook the security aspect, according to Halabi, as the current and previous governments coordinate security with the Syrian regime’s apparatuses, have handed over opposition Syrian refugees in the past, and exchange information about their activities and contacts.

Investment in the asylum file

Recently, there have been repeated threats to the European Union about opening the sea to refugees at a time when Lebanon seeks European and international aid.

The Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised speech, urged the Lebanese authorities to “open the sea” and maritime borders to Syrian refugees, in an attempt to pressure the European Union and the United States to repatriate refugees to their homeland and provide them with aid there.

The Lebanese Minister of the Displaced, Essam Sharafeddine, suggested fully opening the maritime ports and preparing ships to carry Syrian refugees to Europe.

These threats coincide with a European grant worth one billion euros to Lebanon, to be disbursed over three years, and just before a donors’ conference in Brussels, which will provide pledges to Syrians both within the country and in neighboring states.

The European Union Ambassador to Lebanon, Sandra De Waele, stated that the aid package for Lebanon, valid until 2027, would allow continued funding of key sectors such as social protection, health, water, and education, and that not only Syrian refugees but also Lebanese benefit from the European Union-funded social assistance programs.

She also mentioned working with the UN Refugee Agency to develop a more organized approach to voluntary return to Syria, and her support for the Lebanese army and public security forces through providing them with necessary equipment and expertise to manage Lebanon’s land and maritime borders.


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