The armed conflict in Syria left millions displaced, both internally and as refugees seeking asylum in neighboring countries. Lebanon’s geographical proximity made it a primary destination for Syrians who fled their country and origins to secure a decent and safe life, forced to do so due to the armed conflict and the human rights violations perpetrated by the Syrian government and other armed militias spread on Syrian territory.
Lately, Lebanese officials have increased political statements asserting that the armed conflict in Syria has ended, calling for Syrian refugees to submit to the “voluntary return” plan proposed by the Lebanese government end of 2022. This plan aims for the return of 15,000 refugees per month, with the absence of any official participation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and without any consideration to the United Nations or any international organization’s assessment of the reality of the situation in Syria.
The recent political trend involves the implementation of policies aimed at pressuring Syrian refugees to return to their home country, increasing their legal insecurity in Lebanon, as April 2023 witnessed an escalation of arbitrary security crackdowns and raids of places of residence of Syrian refugees in multiple Lebanese areas (Bourj Hammoud, Haret Sakher, Wadi Khaled, Hermel, as well as the Chouf and Keserwan districts), resulting in the arbitrary arrest and forced deportation of many refugees.
Many systematic decisions and inciting statements accompanied the security crackdown. Multiple municipalities issued arbitrary decisions limiting refugees’ freedom of movement and depriving them of their fundamental rights. Furthermore, Lebanese political parties and ministers in the caretaker government issued inciting statements stirring up Lebanese people against refugees, exploiting the refugee file as a scapegoat for the worsening economic crisis in Lebanon, completely disregarding the harmful consequences of such a narrative on the relationship between the Lebanese population and Syrian refugees, noting that the current and previous Lebanese governments have neglected the need to develop clear policies to organize the stay of refugees in the country.
Syria has not yet reached an appropriate security state adequate for the return of refugees to their areas of origin. Syria’s economy has collapsed due to the conflict; many infrastructures, public utilities, and residential buildings have been destroyed, with no sight of internationally coordinated reconstruction. As a result, more than 80% of the population in Syria lives in extreme poverty; in addition to the ongoing hostilities in some areas, arbitrary arrests by various parties to the conflict on top of which the Syrian government, as Syrian intelligence officers accuse the refugees returning to their country of disloyalty and “involvement in terrorist acts,” forcing them into military conscription, precisely because they decided to flee Syria.
Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR) documents in this report the human rights violations committed against refugees in the context of the security raids and arbitrary arrests in preparation for their forced deportation. The report is based on information gathered since the beginning of the security crackdown through dozens of testimonies conducted by ACHR’s team with refugee victims and survivors, first or second-degree relatives, and witnesses of arbitrary mass arrests and forced deportations. The report sets out the methodology of the crackdown and its impact on the refugees’ ability to live a decent life in light of a total absence of governmental institutions responsible for monitoring human rights and holding accountable perpetrators of violations.
Since the beginning of April until the 16th of May 2023, ACHR has documented no less than 22 security raids conducted by the Lebanese army on the residences of Syrian refugees. Additionally, there were at least two temporary security checkpoints, one in Jounieh and the other at the Al-Rahab roundabout in the Zahle district. As a result, a total of 808 refugees were arbitrarily arrested (including 17 who hold legal residency permits, 13 women, 25 minors, and two people of the LGBTQ+ community), some of whom were subjected to physical violence, ill, inhumane, or degrading treatment at the hands of army officers. In addition, at least 336 detained refugees were forcibly deported (including 12 refugees holding legal residency permits, 13 women, 22 minors, and 2 LGBTQ+ community).
75 of the deported refugees have told ACHR that Syrian authorities handed them over to human smugglers at the Lebanese borders, who negotiated with them for their return to Lebanon in exchange for sums ranging from 150$ to 300$ per person and 3000$ for those facing imminent security threats. 51 of the 75 refugees confirmed that the Lebanese army directly handed them to the Syrian authorities.
In addition, ACHR has reported approximately 32 security raids and/or checkpoints circulated in the media or on social media platforms. Preliminary findings from field researchers estimate that from 900 to 1400 Syrian refugees were arrested. However, the team has not been able to verify the accuracy of the number of refugees arrested and deported until the morning of Tuesday, May 16, 2023. Still, activists claim the number of forced deportations has reached around 700 cases during the security campaign.
The escalation through a security crackdown seems to be based on the arbitrary decision issued by the High Defense Council to deport all Syrian refugees who irregularly entered Lebanon after the 24th of April 2019, without considering the security situations of these refugees who face risks if forcibly deported. Such decisions violate the International Bill of Human Rights enshrined in the preamble of the Lebanese Constitution. According to ACHR’s monitoring of the human rights situation of Syrian refugees in the last four years, Lebanon is still using the Syrian refugee file as a bargaining chip and a way to pressure the international community, noting that the escalation of violations takes place prior to international conferences in support of Syria, mainly the Brussels VII conference scheduled for mid-June 2023.
ACHR strongly advises the Lebanese authorities to uphold their international obligations under international treaties and local laws, most notably the “Convention against Torture” guaranteed by the constitution, and grant refugees legal protection, cease the implementation of the publicly announced plan, and stop the forced deportation of Syrian refugees, in addition to the annulment of all resolutions allowing the deportation of refugees, including decision no. 50/أع/م ج اد/س, issued by the Higher Defense Council on the 15th of April 2019, and decision no. 43830/ق.م.ع issued by the GDGS on the 13th of May 2019.
The Lebanese government should also cease all political statements and media incitement against refugees, and establish clear policies on dealing with refugees, which align with the Lebanese constitution and Lebanon’s commitments to international law, allow victims at risk of deportation to appeal against the decisions issued against them through the competent judicial authorities, and grant all refugees residing on Lebanese territory the right to apply for legal residency permits and appeal against any rejection without being subjected to excessively burdensome conditions that hinder their access to this fundamental right.
ACHR also calls upon the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to activate the role of UNHCR’s protection office, provide legal representation, answer urgent requests for help for Syrian refugees at risk of deportation, always prioritize the protection of vulnerable refugees at risk of deportation, increase pathways to resettlement or temporary protection in 3rd countries, and provide shelter to refugees who lack safety in their places of residence.
ACHR calls upon donors and the international community to pressure the Lebanese government to make strict decisions to fight forced deportations and urge Lebanon to reverse decisions of forced deportations and arbitrary arrests against refugees, human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers.
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