Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect interviewees anonymity.
Lebanese security forces are increasingly carrying out raids at businesses and refugee camps, according to reports, renewing concerns that Syrian refugees are at risk of being unfairly deported and mistreated.
Growing reports of raids over the past few weeks follow a Lebanese government drive against undocumented foreign labour, a move Syrians feared was aimed at earmarking them.
As the Syrian crisis enters its ninth year, there are around 1.5 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring Lebanon – more refugees per capita than any other country in the world – and most are undocumented.
According to the National News Agency in Lebanon and other local media, at least 301 Syrians were deported in May.
Eight Lebanese NGOs have now taken up the issue with the authorities, demanding that those faced with the threat of deportation are provided with an opportunity to explain why they are unable to return, in court.
Ahmad*, an undocumented Syrian refugee who is not registered with the UNHCR and does not hold a work permit, serves tables at a cafe in Beirut.
“If they catch me I’ll be imprisoned,” said Ahmed, adding that because of the raids, he is sometimes forced to disguise himself as a customer. “They will ask me to leave the country and come after me later.”
Business owners have been threatened with hefty fines unless they provide work permits of the Syrians they employ.
Syrian waiters are cheaper to hire than Lebanese nationals.
But up to 80 percent of Syrians in Lebanon do not have valid residency permits because they are expensive and difficult to obtain.
Residency permits cost $200 a year while work permits range from $750 to $1,200.
I am afraid that they want us gone. I cannot return because my city has become a centre of the Syrian armed forces and is unsafe for me as they will surely make me join the army.
The Syrians Al Jazeera interviewed said there were also added costs for “bribing” Lebanese sponsors and paying for health checkups.
Majid* works at a restaurant in Gemmayzeh, a Beirut neighbourhood in the bohemian Achrafieh quarter.
He said many of his compatriots have been fired as the news of the crackdown spooked employers.
“I get paid $3 an hour,” he said. “If the raids continue I will have to stop working and will have to live on someone’s couch or on the street. I don’t even want to think about it.”
The Syrians worry that if they are returned they would have to join President Bashar al-Assad‘s army – many had left to escape conscription – or face arbitrary detention or torture.
Asir*, who was employed as an electrician at a company, said he has been put on indefinite leave without pay.
“I am afraid that they want us gone,” he told Al Jazeera. “I cannot return because my city has become a centre of the Syrian armed forces and is unsafe for me as they will surely make me join the army.”
Ahmad, Majid and Asir said that they go into hiding overnight, worried about the rising presence of security forces.
The raids come against the backdrop of growing hostility towards Syrians in Lebanon, including from right-wing politicians who blame them for Lebanese unemployment.
“Almost all Syrians have been working in the informal sectors since the nineties,” said Yassir Nasin, head of research of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “That has to do with cheap sources of labour in sectors the Lebanese are shy of working in, areas such as construction, agriculture, and sanitation. That is not where they present competition to the Lebanese.
“Waiters have become a visible sign of how the Syrians are taking jobs that the Lebanese can do. But their numbers are very low. There is no study to suggest that the Syrians are replacing the Lebanese on a large scale in any sector the Lebanese are qualified for and willing to work in.”
In a response to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, Camille Abousleiman, the labour minister, said: “We are only asking foreign workers to get their papers in order.
“They don’t need to fear deportation. The Lebanese government wants to displaced to leave as soon as they can and when the conditions are feasible, but the decision is not to deport them.”
Mohamad* lives in southern Lebanon. His brother Raed* came to live with him in 2014, fleeing war and conscription.
But in the month of Ramadan, Raed left the house to buy sweets to break his fast when Lebanese security officials asked to see his residency papers.
Although he did not possess these documents, Raed was registered with UNHCR, Mohamad told Al Jazeera.
“They deported him and handed him to the Syrian government,” claimed Mohamad. “The Syrian government took him to Dar’aa and granted him 15 days to join the army. They are probably going to send him to Idlib. Of course, he doesn’t want to go. Nobody takes the road to death by choice.”
Raed is now trying to find a way to Turkey – ironically via Idlib – where fighting is ongoing.
Activists decry new ruling
But the eight NGOs calling for Lebanon to “respect the rule of law” regarding deportations have warned against an official decision, which allows for the forcible deportations of undocumented people who entered after April 24 this year.
Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon’s General Security director, recently confirmed the ruling.
“There was a decision taken by the Higher Defence Council in Lebanon on April 24, 2019 that [seeks to] prevent Syrians from being smuggled into Lebanon and demands the security service deports them to Syria and we are just executing that law, no more, no less,” he told local media. “If the security service catches someone that has smuggled his way into Lebanon, they will be handed to the general security and then sent back to their country.”
Abousleiman, the labour minister, refused to comment on the April 24 ruling.
The new law applies to Raed’s case.
After arriving in Lebanon, he had an accident and couldn’t afford Lebanon’s crippling medical fees.
He crossed back to Syria where treatment is cheaper, before returning to Lebanon – after April 24 – by the same mountainous smuggling route.
That meant he had technically crossed the border without papers, not as a refugee, making him a target for deportation.
Access Center for Human Rights, along with seven other NGOs, is monitoring Raed’s case.
“Refugees who have been deported … continue to face the risk of detention and torture in Syria,” said Mohamad Hasan, the group’s director.
Activists are concerned that those who entered without papers even before April might also be deported, because they have no way of proving their date of arrival.
Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with Legal Agenda, one of the eight NGOs, is aware of one case where a refugee who arrived before April was deported.
“For those who entered [without documents] it is difficult to prove the date of entry, especially if they entered after the government forced UNHCR to suspend registration in 2015,” she said, “and that effectively puts them at risk of being deported after the new decision.”