Syrian refugees stand near trucks carrying their belongings as they prepare to leave Lebanon back to Syria, in Arsal in the Bekaa Valley, on May 14, 2024.

World leaders must commit to protecting Syrian refugees as Lebanon steps up crackdown ahead of Brussels conference

Donor governments meeting in Brussels, especially European Union (EU) member states, must ensure that any funds pledged to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not contribute to human rights abuses, including forcible deportations to Syria, said Amnesty International today, as the eighth EU Ministerial Brussels Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” commences today.

On 2 May, the European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen announced a one billion Euro aid package to Lebanon, partially dedicated to bolstering Lebanese security services so that they can curb irregular migration through the Mediterranean from Lebanon to Europe. Just days later, on 8 May, the Lebanese General Security announced sweeping new measures against Syrian refugees including restrictions on their ability to obtain residency permits and work in the country, and has stepped up raids, collective evictions, arrests and deportations. Robust conditionality and monitoring mechanisms are urgently needed to ensure that any funding to Lebanese authorities is to the benefit of communities in need and does not contribute to human rights violations.

“Once again, President Von Der Leyen has put her desire to curb the flow of refugees at any cost into Europe before the EU’s obligations to protect refugees fleeing conflict or persecution. This appears to have emboldened Lebanese authorities to intensify their ruthless campaign targeting refugees with hateful discourse, forced deportations and stifling measures on residency and labour,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Yet, Lebanon remains the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita and has struggled to assist refugees amid an acute economic crisis. As a show of solidarity, European states should increase the number of resettlements to European countries of Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon.

“Donors at the annual humanitarian conference for Syria and refugee host countries must press the Lebanese authorities to immediately cease their unprecedented crackdown on Syrian refugees and lift abusive measures aimed at pressuring them to leave the country despite the well-documented risks they could face upon their return.”

Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, continue to document how Syrian security forces and government-affiliated militias arbitrarily detain, torture, enforce disappearance and kill refugees who return to Syria.

“What can we do other than hide?!”

Over the last two months, Lebanese authorities had already begun stepping up hateful rhetoric towards refugees and introduced additional restrictive measures intended to pressure refugees to return.

Amnesty International spoke to eight refugees who described how they are living in fear; avoiding leaving the house, going to work, or sending their kids to school. All requested to keep their identities undisclosed for fear of reprisal.

Human rights organizations unanimously agree: no part of Syria is safe for refugee returns.

Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International

Municipalities announced discriminatory curfews against Syrian refugees and shut down dozens of small businesses across Lebanon employing or run by Syrians. The Lebanese General Security (GSO) suspended the processes to grant or renew residencies through a house renting contract, the sponsorship of a Lebanese national, and through financial guarantees. It also warned Lebanese citizens against employing, sheltering, or providing housing for Syrian refugees without residency documentation in Lebanon, adding that establishments and shops owned, co-owned or managed by Syrian refugees will be closed, if they’re not abiding by old and new GSO regulations.

The GSO also resumed the organization of the so-called “voluntary and safe” returns of Syrian refugees, with more than 400 refugees returned in a trip on 14 May.

A Syrian man who was in the process of renewing his and his family’s residency permits when the new GSO restrictions were announced told Amnesty International: “At this point I stopped going to the General Security offices, and my wife and I laid low. We don’t work, we tried to be legal, but failed repeatedly. Several officers visited our house and inquired about us around, throughout the years. Not once they found anything to jeopardize our status. Yet still, I got a deportation order, my wife is in limbo, and my sons aren’t allowed to renew their residency permits through their work sponsors. What can we do other than hide?”

At least 83% of Syrian refugees do not have access to residency status, meaning they are at risk of arrest and deportation. 90% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live under the poverty line.

Another Syrian man who runs a small grocery store told Amnesty International that GSO recently visited his store and ordered him to close it and leave the country. “I cannot stop working; I have to pay my rent to the owner of the shop and the cost of the goods I sell to the merchants,” he said.

Syria is not safe

Reports by the UN, EU as well as human rights organizations including Amnesty International, have all concluded that Syria remains unsafe for return and refugees are at risk of human rights violations, including torture and persecution upon return. In recent months, Syria has also experienced the worst escalation in violence since 2020.

A Syrian mother of two children told Amnesty International: “I swear if there is a safe zone in Syria, I would’ve been the first to return! Safe, as in not under the control of the [Syrian] regime. The regime isn’t safe for us. Many like us, if they’re granted the capacity to return to the regions not controlled by the regime, they run back, without the need for organized return trips! If I had one percent hope that my husband and I will be safe upon return, I swear we wouldn’t stay in such harsh conditions here”.

“Human rights organizations unanimously agree: no part of Syria is safe for refugee returns. Lebanon’s authorities must stop summarily deporting refugees to a place where they are at risk of violations, lift restrictions and end their vitriolic campaign against refugees. EU countries similarly have a legal and moral obligation to refrain from forcibly turning back boats carrying migrants to Lebanon,” said Aya Majzoub.