Pushbacks from Cyprus to Lebanon leads to chain refoulement to Syria

Press Statement
Beirut – 3 Jun 2021

On 16 May 2021, a boat left Lebanon with 56 migrants on board (39 men, seven women and ten children) and was located off the coast of Cyprus, approximately 16 nautical miles south of Cyprus’ Cape Greco. Cypriot authorities checked the documents of the people on board and then denied entry to Cyprus and pushed them back to Lebanon. At least eighteen people who were returned to Lebanon were brought to detention. On 1 June 2021, the Lebanese authorities deported at least 15 individuals to Syria, including five people who were pushed back by Cyprus on 16 May 2021. Another deportation was scheduled for today, 3 June 2021, during which the deportation of at least one person was successfully challenged, but others are still in detention at high risk of deportation.

By preventing access to its territory, denying access to asylum, and by pushing back vessels at sea to Lebanon – causing the chain refoulement of asylum seekers to Syria – Cyprus is violating the principle of non-refoulement set out under the 1951 Geneva Convention and EU law on asylum, and infringes Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Article 3 of the UN Convention on Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Article 16 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Cyprus is also breaching Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 of the ECHR on prohibition of collective expulsions as it does not provide for an individual examination of the cases. On 18 March 2021, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, urged Cypriot authorities to investigate allegations of pushbacks and ill-treatment of migrants by members of security forces.

By deporting people back to Syria, a country that still practices torture, Lebanon is violating Article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment that is ratified by the state on 5 October 2000.

Recommendations

The Lebanese government must abide by its obligations under international treaties, including its obligation to not deport or forcibly return individuals at risk of torture. This means immediately halting arbitrary deportation of Syrians from Lebanon into Syria, and adopt policies that guarantee the necessary protection of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It should also provide victims at risk of deportation the right to appeal deportation orders issued against them before the competent Lebanese judicial courts, and repeal the decision to deport Syrians who entered Lebanon through informal crossing paths.

The Cyprus government must abide by EU and international obligations to respect the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, provide assistance to boats in distress at sea by carrying out search and rescue operations, and stop endangering lives by using manoeuvres such as the high-speed circling of vessels. The people on boats arriving at their territorial waters or coast should be at least granted temporary access to territory so that relevant authorities can establish people’s nationality, as well as whether individuals came to Cyprus to seek asylum and if such is the case to be provide access to the asylum procedure and dignified reception conditions. The Cypriot authorities should also conduct a transparent, thorough, and impartial investigation into allegations that Cypriot coast guard personnel are involved in acts that put the lives and safety of migrants and asylum seekers at risk.

To both the Cypriot and Lebanese governments to review the readmission agreement signed between them and provide clear and unambiguous safeguards against direct or indirect refoulement in line with their international obligations.

The EU and its Member States, should open up resettlement places and complementary pathway opportunities for displaced Syrians in Lebanon, and provide funding to improve the livelihoods and rights of both refugees and hosting communities, notably by  facilitating access to legal residency for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as well as by  redesigning its aid architecture to provide support, resources and funding directly to organizations on the ground.

The European Commission should also press the government of Cyprus to respect the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, and support the creation of an independent mechanism to monitor effective access to EU asylum procedures, respect for fundamental rights and respect for the principle of non-refoulement at the EU’s borders. The European Commission must review whether bilateral readmission agreements signed by member states of the EU and third countries are in line with obligations arising from EU and international human rights law. In case of violations, the European Commission must be able to take effective measures to ensure accountability for rights violations. Findings should be publicly available and potential victims should receive legal advice and have effective access to justice.

Background information

Since March 2020, Cypriot authorities have repeatedly resorted to pushing back boats, both to Turkey and Lebanon, and denying individuals access to an asylum procedure. For example, in September 2020, Cypriot authorities pushed back 229 individuals in at least five separate instances from Cypriot waters to Lebanon.

Boat departures of predominantly Syrians from Lebanon to Cyprus have significantly increased since 2020. Smuggling routes to Cyprus reflect a lack of access to meaningful international protection in Lebanon. On 4 May 2021, Lebanese police intercepted around 51 Syrians at sea who were trying to reach Cyprus and brought them back to Lebanon.

Additionally, Lebanon has a strict non-readmission policy for Syrians who have left the country and the Higher Defence Council had decided in 2019 that Syrians who had entered Lebanon after April 2019 could be expelled to Syria without judicial procedure or legal remedies. According to Lebanese authorities, 2,477 Syrian refugees were deported to Syria between 13 May and 9 August 2019. Of the 42 cases of arbitrary deportation during 2019 that ACHR was able to document, seven were subjected to arrest and torture by the Syrian authorities upon their return to Syria while it was impossible to verify their conditions post-deportation of the others.

Since summer 2020, Cyprus and Lebanon have held talks on a readmission agreement that would operationalise a 2002 bilateral readmission agreement between the two countries. While the agreement does not contain an explicit non-refoulement clause, Article 11 provides that the agreement is subject to the obligations arising from the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if the agreement does contain a clause for the readmission also of non-Lebanese citizens, provided they left from there, Lebanon has only ratified the agreement, but not its implementation protocol. Syrians pushed back by Cyprus may become victims of chain refoulement to Syria upon arrival at the Beirut port.

Lebanon is not a party to the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 or its 1967 Protocol. Moreover, it has not adopted a clear legislation addressing the status of refugees. Due to the absence of such legislation, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Lebanese State and the UNHCR in September 2003, which “provides a mechanism for the issuing of temporary residence permits to asylum seekers”, but only 20% of the refugees from Syria have such a legal residence permit.

Signatories:

Access Center for Human Rights (Wousoul)
Centre d’accès pour les droits de l’homme (ACHR)
ALEF – Act for human rights
Centre Libanais des Droits Humains / Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH)
KISA
EuroMed Rights