The UN and human rights groups have raised objections over Lebanon’s plan to repatriate Syrian refugees at a rate of 15,000 a month.
The plan will be implemented “regardless of UNHCR’s position”,― caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charaffedine said on Wednesday in an interview carried by Lebanon’s state news agency.
He said that he would conduct an official visit to Syria in the following days to discuss the plan with the Syrian government.
Lebanon, a troubled country struggling with a prolonged economic meltdown, hosts the Middle East’s highest number of Syrian refugees per capita. More than one million Syrians have sought refuge there, escaping a country racked by a decade of war.
The economic crisis has, since 2019, impoverished about 80 per cent of Lebanon’s population, according to the UN, while nine out of 10 Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty. The financial collapse has placed the small nation under immense strain, leading to a breakdown in the supply of basic goods and services.
Life in Lebanon has come to be defined by chronic power, fuel, water, and medicine shortages, and a plunge in the value of the local currency has drastically reduced the purchasing power of most people ― Lebanese and refugees alike.
Lebanese officials say struggling Lebanon cannot withstand the added pressure of a high concentration of refugees within its borders. But Syrian refugees have often been used as political scapegoats in Lebanese politics, according to rights groups and migration experts.
While Mr Charafeddine stressed that “the return of the displaced will be safe and dignified", the United Nations (UNHCR) says that it is not part of the plan, and leading rights groups have raised objections to it.
UNHCR “continues to call on the government to respect the fundamental right of all refugees to a voluntary, safe and dignified return and the principle of non-refoulement”, a UNHCR statement said on Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday called the plan to repatriate 15,000 Syria refugees a month “alarming” and a “clear breach of Lebanon’s international obligations”.
“Contrary to the minister's statements, Syria is anything but safe for returnees,” HRW said in a statement. Any forced returns it said, would place Lebanon in direct contravention of international law.
HRW and other rights groups have produced numerous reports in recent years on the dangers of forcible return of refugees to Syria: just last year HRW published a report detailing human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and its affiliates faced by refugees who returned to Syria .
Between 2017 and 2021, HRW documented 21 cases of arrest and arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture, three kidnappings, five extrajudicial killings, 17 enforced disappearances, and one case of alleged sexual violence, according to the report.
In recent years Lebanon has repeatedly pressured its Syrian refugee population to return, leading to fears that refugees who return would suffer the same fate as many who returned before them.
Rather than force returns, the UN and rights groups say international donor countries should assist Lebanon by providing more funding for humanitarian assistance, and continuing to facilitate the resettlement of Syrian refugees in safe countries.