Lebanon: Wave of hostility exposes hollowness of claims that Syrian refugee returns are voluntary
An attack which forced hundreds of Syrian refugees to leave Deir al-Ahmar, an informal camp in the Bekaa valley, last week is a clear example of the escalating hostility which is driving many refugees to leave Lebanon and return to Syria despite ongoing violations of international humanitarian law there, Amnesty International said today.
Since July 2018 the Lebanese authorities have been arranging returns of refugees to Syria, claiming these returns are wholly voluntary. However, Amnesty International’s analysis shows that people are being pushed back to Syria through a combination of restrictive government policies, dire humanitarian conditions and rampant discrimination.
“Life for many Syrian refugees in Lebanon is marked by fear, constant intimidation and feelings of hopelessness. Despite the Lebanese government’s claims that returns to Syria are voluntary, incidents like the attack on Deir al-Ahmar show that life is becoming intolerable for refugees, leaving many with no choice but to return to Syria,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.
Life for many Syrian refugees in Lebanon is marked by fear, constant intimidation and feelings of hopelessness
The organization has researched how unlawful evictions, curfews, constant raids on refugee camps and mass arrests are making life unbearable for many refugees in Lebanon, forcing many to return to Syria despite the ongoing dangers.
“By failing to ensure refugees are protected from attacks, harassment or intimidation and imposing unfair and restrictive policies that make their lives more difficult, the Lebanese authorities are fuelling an environment that effectively coerces refugees to return to Syria, where they could be at risk of interrogation on arrival, torture, enforced disappearance and other violations and abuses,” said Lynn Maalouf.
For the return of refugees to Syria to be truly voluntary it must be based on their free and informed consent. Amnesty International believes that many Syrian refugees who apply to leave Lebanon are not in a position to take a free and informed decision, for a number of reasons: the dire conditions they face in Lebanon, including difficulties in obtaining or renewing valid residence visas barring them from fully accessing essential services, as well as their lack of access to objective and updated information about the current human rights situation in Syria.
This means that the Lebanese authorities are in breach of their obligation not to return refugees to a place where they would be at real risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations (the obligation of non-refoulement), as they are imposing on them conditions that effectively force them to leave Lebanon.
On 5 June, Lebanese authorities ordered the evacuation of Deir al-Ahmar, which housed 600 refugees, after tensions at the camp soared when a fire broke out. Refugees living there complained that firefighters had arrived late, leading to an altercation between the refugees and local residents. NGO workers present at the camp told Amnesty International that some local men from Deir al-Ahmar threatened to burn the refugees in their tents, prompting many to flee immediately.
Later that night, at least 50 men arrived and began to attack the camp, setting three tents on fire and using a bulldozer to demolish another two. They yelled threats at the refugees: “You are sullying our soil – get the hell out of here – burn here and in hell…” None of the security forces present at the camp intervened to stop the attack. A day later, the municipal authorities of Deir al-Ahmar, as well as neighbouring villages and the nearby town of Baalbek, issued a statement ordering Syrian refugees to leave Deir al-Ahmar, describing this order as “for their own protection.”
None of the surrounding villages agreed to take in the refugees but around 90 families out of 120 were finally allowed on 10 June to set up camp in the remote village of Mekna. There, the vast majority are living in fields out in the open without access to electricity, water, food or tents, and no amenities nearby.
By failing to ensure refugees are protected from attacks, harassment or intimidation and imposing unfair and restrictive policies that make their lives more difficult, the Lebanese authorities are fuelling an environment that effectively coerces refugees to return to Syria
In another indication of just how hostile the atmosphere for refugees in Lebanon has become, the Free Patriotic Movement, a Lebanese political party, organized a meeting on 8 June to mobilize against Syrian refugees and call for their return. The party circulated leaflets bearing the following slogan: “Syria is safe to return to and Lebanon cannot cope any more” and posters urging people “to protect Lebanese workers” by reporting refugees who violate labour laws.
In April, Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council, a military body, imposed a deadline of 10 June for all “semi-permanent structures” built by Syrian refugees in informal camps in the northern town of Arsal, using cement and higher than 1.5 metres, to be demolished. According to a humanitarian worker in Arsal, the authorities are pressuring the refugees to demolish the structures themselves to avoid images of soldiers forcibly demolishing homes in the camp. A video reviewed by Amnesty International appears to show a female refugee demolishing a concrete wall using a hammer.
A document released by UNHCR on 10 June also revealed that the Lebanese authorities have tightened restrictions on Syrian refugees and children under 15 seeking regular residency status. They have also issued a new decree to deport any Syrian found to have entered Lebanon irregularly after 24 April 2019.
Around 73% of refugees from Syria live in Lebanon without valid residency visas, either because they cannot afford to pay the $200 fee or because of delays in processing applications by local authorities. Refugees without regular migration status risk detention and their access to services such as education and health care is restricted.
End voluntary returns
Amnesty International considers the coercive environment in which returns to Syria are taking place means that they are not voluntary. Therefore, the Lebanese authorities are in breach of their obligation under international law not to return refugees back to a place where they would be at real risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations.
On 30 November 2018 Amnesty International wrote to Lebanon’s General Security to ask about how the lists of returnees are produced, coordination with the Syrian government and whether they follow up with refugees who return. GS responded on 18 December 2018 stating that refugees apply for return at registration offices across Lebanon and then the names are compiled and sent to the Syrian government for pre-approval before their return to Syria is permitted. Transportation is then organized by bus to the Syrian border.
To date, civilians returning to their place of origin are requested to go through a “security clearance” involving interrogation by Syrian security forces responsible for widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses constituting crimes against humanity, including the use of torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.
“The Lebanese government must urgently eliminate any coercive factors such as refugees’ inability to obtain official residency papers and other restrictions or stop returns of refugees to Syria altogether. For its part the international community must provide sufficient funding and resources, resettle refugees, and press the Lebanese authorities not to return refugees to Syria until it is clear that the situation there is safe and that the rights of returnees will be protected,” said Lynn Maalouf.
As of 2019 there are 938,531 Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with UNHCR and 31,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
In addition, the Lebanese government claims that around 550,000 live in Lebanon unregistered.
In March 2019, General Security announced that 172,046 refugees had returned to Syria since December 2017 due to easing administrative restrictions and facilitating and organizing returns.