Responding to the news that Lebanon’s General Security agency will start sending Syrian refugees back to their country next week in a so-called voluntary process, Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Acting Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said:
“The Lebanese authorities are scaling up the so-called voluntary returns, a plan which has been in place for four years, when it is well established that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not in a position to take a free and informed decision about their return due to restrictive government policies on movement and residency, rampant discrimination, lack of access to essential services as well as unavailability of objective and updated information about the current human rights situation in Syria.
“In enthusiastically facilitating these returns, the Lebanese authorities are knowingly putting Syrian refugees at risk of suffering from heinous abuse and persecution upon their return to SyriaDiana Semaan, Amnesty International
“In enthusiastically facilitating these returns, the Lebanese authorities are knowingly putting Syrian refugees at risk of suffering from heinous abuse and persecution upon their return to Syria. Lebanon should respect its obligations under international law and halt its plans to return Syrian refugees en-masse.
“Amid the country’s spiralling economic crisis, the international community must continue to support more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon to prevent a further rise in unsafe returns.”
On 12 October, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Lebanon’s General Security agency will start sending Syrian refugees back home “in batches” from next week. On 13 October, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security, said that 1,600 Syrian refugees will be returned after the Syrian government approves.
According to the General Security agency, refugees apply for return at the registration offices run by them across Lebanon. The agency then proceeds in compiling all the names of registered refugees and organizes transportation in buses to the Syrian border. As per the bilateral agreement, the Lebanese General Security also sends lists of names of registered refugees to the Syrian government for pre-approval before their return to Syria.
For the return of refugees to their country of origin to be truly voluntary, it must be based on their free and informed consent. However, the dire conditions in Lebanon raise doubts about the ability of Syrian refugees to provide truly free consent.
International law prohibits “constructive” refoulement, which occurs when states use indirect means to coerce individuals to return to a place where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations.
Amnesty International believes that, in many cases, the Lebanese government’s unfair policies represent a fundamental factor in the decision to leave the country. In these cases, the refugee’s consent to repatriation cannot be considered free.
Amnesty International has previously documented how Syrian refugees have faced torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention upon returning home. Those who left Syria at the beginning of the conflict are at grave risk of facing reprisals upon their return, due to their perceived political opinions or as a punishment for fleeing the country.