Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon may be forcibly sent home

Minister says the Syrians could be sent back after violent incident at a refugee settlement

A Syrian family with their belongings ride past a burnt tent in a truck as they evacuate an informal refugee camp after a fight broke out last week between camp residents and Lebanese firefighters who arrived to put out a fire, in Deir Al-Ahmar, east Lebanon, Sunday, June 9, 2019. Dozens of Syrian refugees have dismantled their tents in a camp they lived in for years in eastern Lebanon after authorities ordered their evacuation following a brawl with locals. Lebanon hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees who fled the war next door since 2011, overwhelming the country of nearly 5 million. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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Several hundred refugees might be forced to return to Syria from Lebanon after an incident in which a civil defence member was injured created tensions with Lebanese in the area, a top official said.

"We hope that this sort of thing never happens. We are against forced return, but in this case, return [to Syria] may be the best solution," Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib told Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star.

Mr Gharib was not available for comment on Monday.

Although Lebanon has not signed the 1951 convention defining the status and rights of refugees, it adheres to most other treaties linked to refugee protection, including the 1984 United Nations convention against torture which states that no state can expel a person to another country where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

Lebanon is also bound by the international legal principle of non-refoulement which states that people should not be returned to places where their life is in danger.

Syrian human rights organisations routinely document cases of arbitrary arrests and killings, as well as torture.

Last week, a civil defence member suffered a serious head injury and was placed in intensive care after arriving at a Syrian camp to extinguish a fire.

After the incident, all residents fled the camp outside the village of Deir Al Ahmar in the Bekaa region.

However, Syrians and Lebanese locals have given differing accounts of the events leading up to the firefighter’s injuries.

Jean Fakhry, head of the Deir Al Ahmar Municipalities Union, said that a Syrian woman berated the driver driver of the civil defence lorry as it was driving through the camp to put out a fire nearby. She accused him of being late and of disturbing people living in the camp.

"Forty or 50 men came to her defence and started throwing stones at the truck", smashing the windows and injuring the driver, Mr Fakhry told The National.

A resident of the camp told the Daily Star that the woman asked a civil defence member why he was late to extinguish the fire, which had already been put out.

“He started speaking badly to her. One of the kids asked him why he was speaking like that to a woman, and he got worked up," the witness told the paper.

The civil defence member then allegedly drove recklessly through the camp, endangering residents, before smashing the lorry into a tent.

Though residents admitted small children threw stones at the vehicle, they denied that this damaged the vehicle or injured the driver, according to the Daily Star.

“UNHCR and the ministry of social affairs have moved the Syrians to other villages nearby," said Mr Fakhry. “We don’t want them back here to avoid friction with the local Lebanese population."

The UN refugee agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Fakhry said that 750 Syrians used to live in the camp. The Daily Star put the number of residents at 385.

After the incident, the heads of municipalities of Deir Al Ahmar and its surrounding villages banned Syrians from returning to the camp “under any pretext”.

There have been reports of Lebanon summarily deporting Syrians to their home country, but in small numbers.

In late March, Human Rights Watch claimed that Lebanon had summarily deported at least 16 Syrians after they arrived at Beirut airport. Lebanese authorities denied the claims.

Lebanon hosts nearly one million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR. Local authorities believe that there are actually 1.5 million Syrians living in the country, a figure which represents roughly a quarter of the Lebanese population, and are increasingly calling for Syrians to return to home despite the ongoing violence in certain areas.

Voluntary returns of Syrian refugees have also been organised over the past year by local authorities, which announced in March that 170.000 Syrians had left since December 2017.