The frilly dresses Abou Fouad purchased for his daughters to wear on Eid Al Fitr went unworn this year, after the two young girls were deported from Lebanon to neighbouring Syria.
When he returned from his work as a stonemason to his home in a mountain village in central Lebanon's Aley district last week, he was surprised to find the house empty.
His wife and daughters — seven and eight years old — were gone.
Through his neighbours, he was able to piece together that his home had been raided and his family taken by Lebanese authorities.
Shortly after, he received a phone call.
“This is army intelligence,” he recalls a voice on the other end of the line telling him. “We have your wife and daughters, and we’re deporting them.”
Abou Fouad fought tears as he showed The National a photo of his daughters’ matching black-and-white dresses spread out on a bed.
“It feels like they were kidnapped,” he said.
Like other Syrian refugees who spoke to The National for this story, Abou Fouad's full name has been withheld to prevent possible retribution from Syrian or Lebanese authorities.
His wife and daughters were among dozens of Syrian refugees deported recently in raids carried out by the Lebanese Armed Forces in various parts of the country.
“Over 50 Syrians have been deported from Lebanon in the past month and handed to the Syrian authorities,” a security official confirmed to The National.
“The campaign has been against those who entered irregularly or who are living in Lebanon illegally.”
Deported into detention
Mohammed, a refugee living in Beirut, said the army took his brother and his family from their home in the Lebanese capital's Bourj Hammoud area and handed them over to Syrian authorities across the border.
His sister-in-law informed him that her husband was arrested on his return for having defected from the Syrian army in 2014, at the height of the country's 12-year civil war, Mohammed told The National.
Riri, a seven-year-old girl, returned from school one day to find the front door of her house shuttered and her family gone. She only heard from them after seven days, when they were in Syria.
Abou Fouad, who lives in the same area, found her crying in the street and called her uncle to let him know.
The uncle told The National that he had taken Riri in until she can be reunited with her family.
“The first two days were difficult for her. She was crying for her parents,” he said.
“This week, she returned to school. We’re trying to keep her occupied. But she needs her family. She needs to feel their love.”
Abou Fouad's wife told The National she was deported to Damascus, the Syrian capital, along with her stepdaughters after spending five days in a detention cell on the Lebanon-Syria border.
With her entire family residing in Lebanon and hardly any money or clothes, she had nowhere to turn, knocking on doors until a family took her in.
All of the Syrians mentioned in this story were registered with the UN refugee agency but were deported for allowing their Lebanese residency to expire or for irregular entry into the country.
The forced deportation of Syrian refugees by Lebanese authorities has increased in recent years. The Access Centre for Human Rights recorded 154 cases of forced deportations of Syrian refugees last year — compared to only 59 in 2021.
On Monday, international human rights watchdog Amnesty International urged Lebanese authorities to “immediately stop forcibly deporting refugees back to Syria amid fears that these individuals are at risk of torture or persecution at the hands of the Syrian government”.
“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,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“No refugee should be sent back to a place where their life will be at risk.”
Xenophobia as a response to national crises
Lebanon has struggled to deal with the 1.5 million Syrian refugees it has taken in since the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011. This has only become more difficult after the financial crisis that began in 2019.
The financial crash, widely attributed to the country’s political and financial elite, has led to a collapse in the supply of basic goods and services such as electricity and water supply. More than 80 per cent of the population is impoverished and the national currency has plummeted to a fraction of its former value.
Life in Lebanon is defined by chronic shortages, including of bread, fuel and medicine.
As Lebanon’s deterioration continues, so, too, does a collective resentment against Syrian refugees, who are seen as an additional strain on the state’s limited resources.
Anti-refugee rhetoric, long a fixture in Lebanon’s political language, has reached a new high, according to Lebanese socioeconomic researcher Cynthia Saghir.
“During times of crisis, discrimination and xenophobia become more prominent and manifest in violent and belligerent ways,” said Ms Saghir. “Especially in the present, where the Lebanese pound is being traded at more than 100,000 liras to the dollar.”
Popular resentment towards Lebanon’s Syrian population has been spurred by “rampant rumours and misconceptions about how much aid Syrian refugees receive”, she said.
Syrian refugees powerless in Lebanon
Mohammed, whose brother was deported, has lived in Lebanon since 2014. He told The National that he has acutely felt the acrimony over their presence, which he said sometimes manifested itself in verbal intimidation and physical attacks.
“We feel powerless,” he said. “No matter what anyone says or does to us, our hands are tied and we have no rights. We’re guests.”
Lebanese authorities maintain that most of Syria is safe for return and that the vast majority of Syrian refugees are economic migrants. But international human rights organisations have repeatedly warned that Syria remains unsafe for many refugees who have either escaped persecution or military service.
Mohammed has not been able to speak to his brother since he called to inform him that the family had been taken from their home and were being driven to the Syrian border.
Although he has hired a lawyer, he still does not know where his brother is being held or whether he is facing any additional charges.
“We don’t know what his fate is,” he said.
Such stories have done little to stem the tide of anti-Syrian sentiment.
Increasingly, the Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon — bordering at about 25 per cent of the country’s overall population — is viewed by some as a demographic threat.
Since the latest deportations, Syrian refugees have become the main topic of conversation on local news networks, on social media and in the street.
The belief that Syrians will soon outnumber Lebanese is a mainstream fear sustained by politicians such as Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar, who recently proclaimed “we will become refugees in our own country”.
“It’s a civilian occupation,” said the head of Lebanon’s federation of trade unions, Maroun Al Khouli. He also leads the National Campaign to Liberate Lebanon from the Syrian Demographic Occupation.
“Military occupation or civilian occupation — they both lead to the same thing: a 'Greater Syria' and the loss of Lebanon’s sovereignty. We are truly under invasion by a foreign people.”
He justified his support for forced deportations by echoing the claim of scaremongering pundits: that many refugee men are trained in combat due to the Syrian government policy of compulsory conscription and could seek to subjugate Lebanon through armed rebellion.
“At least 200,000 men trained in combat. That's more than the entire Lebanese army and our whole security apparatus,” Mr Khouli said.
But refugees such as Abou Fouad say they only want to live in peace, without fear of persecution.
As a reserve soldier with anti-government convictions, he maintains he cannot return to government-held areas of Syria because he would be forcefully conscripted. And his hometown near Idlib — now an unstable, opposition-controlled area — is still the target of frequent shelling.
“Lebanon can’t handle all this pressure,” he admitted. “But we can’t return to Syria. And we can’t stay in Lebanon because we’re suffering here. Where else is there to go?”