At least three Syrians arrested after being deported from Lebanon, says HRW

In a policy shift, Lebanon has upped the amount of refugees it is returning to Syria

A Syrian family leaves with their belongings from an informal refugee camp in Deir Al Ahmar, east Lebanon. AP
A Syrian family leaves with their belongings from an informal refugee camp in Deir Al Ahmar, east Lebanon. AP

Lebanon is forcibly deporting Syrians back to their home country despite risks of imprisonment or forced military conscription a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has found.

Lebanese authorities deported 2,731 Syrians between May and August after the country’s Higher Defence Council took the decision to deport all Syrians that entered Lebanese territory “illegally” after April 24, 2019.

"There was a decision issued by the Higher Defense Council on April 24 2019 that bans Syrians from entering surreptitiously, and it requests agencies to return anyone who enters surreptitiously to Syria, and we are applying this decision, no more, no less," General Security director Abbas Ibrahim told Asharq Al Awsat in June.

However, at least three Syrians were sent back to Syria despite having entered the country prior to the cut-off date and were detained upon arrival in a country notorious for its ill-treatment of prisoners, said HRW.

"These decisions appear to signal a policy shift in Lebanon, which has – with some exceptions – not forcibly returned refugees to Syria," the NGO wrote in a statement.

With roughly a quarter of its population comprised of Syrians – estimates range between one and 1.5 million - Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world.

At first, Lebanon welcomed Syrians fleeing the civil war that started in 2011 but as the war dragged on, the government instituted policies making it harder for them to work legally, benefit from UN assistance or build proper housing.

President Michel Aoun has repeatedly told Western leaders that Lebanon’s fragile economy cannot bear the burden of Syrian refugees any longer after hosting increasing numbers in the nine years since the beginning of the conflict.

However, several human rights organisations, including HRW and Amnesty International, argue that Syrians risk being arbitrarily arrested, tortured or even killed by Bashar Al Assad’s government.f

Over the past year, Lebanese politicians have been arguing that Syria is safe enough for its citizens to return to because the conflict has been winding down.

Although active combat has ended in much of Syria, Human Rights Watch is still documenting arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and harassment in areas retaken by the government.

“Lebanon is putting Syrians at grave risk by returning them to the country they fled and handing them over to a government that is responsible for mass atrocities,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The burden of hosting an important refugee population is “no excuse for Lebanese authorities to violate international obligations and put people in harm’s way,” added Mrs Fakih.

Between April 24 and 9 August 2019, according to the General Security and Minister of Presidential Affairs data, 2,447 Syrians had been deported back to Syria.

HRW detailed three cases of forcible return, or refoulement, of Syrian men who had entered Lebanon before the new policy was implemented.

One of the men was interrogated for 10 hours by Syrian authorities and then forced to join the military and one was imprisoned in Damascus. The other managed to pay a large sum of money to secure his release and is trying to leave Syria again.

HRW did not specify why the men were interrogated or imprisoned, but Syrians living in Lebanon regularly report the arrest of relatives upon their return because they are suspected of being part of the opposition to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

Men between 18 and 42 years old are also subject to forced military conscription, which is another reason why refugees are reluctant to return to Syria.

Aid groups pointed out that as a part of the convention against torture, Lebanon is obligated to not return or extradite anyone in danger of being tortured. Lebanon is also bound by international law principle of non-refoulement not to return people to places where they risk persecution.

“As long as independent monitoring bodies are not allowed access to Syria - including the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria – in order to assess the security situation for the safe return of refugees, there is no way of determining whether returnees would be at real risk of serious human rights violations once back in Syria,” Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, Lynn Maalouf, said.

However, no foreign country has officially protested Lebanon forcibly returning refugees to Syria. Pro-Damascus Lebanese politicians deny arrests and torture of returnees.

UNHCR, which assists Syrian refugees, has also stayed silent about the Lebanese government's recent change of policy. Last summer, several senior politicians accused the agency of discouraging Syrians from returning to their home country. In retaliation, the Foreign Ministry temporarily froze work permits of its foreign staff.

Published: September 3, 2019 05:00 PM

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