Beirut, Lebanon – Struggling to deal with over one million refugees from Syria, Lebanon has recently limited its open-border policy and deported Palestinian refugees from Syria back to Syria.
Although on May 8, the Lebanese Ministry of Interior stated that “there is no decision preventing Palestinian refugees in Syria from entering Lebanon and passing through the country”, Amnesty International issued a report on July 1 that includes an alleged leaked document from the Directorate of General Security. In it, Lebanon’s general security directorate ordered all airlines to “not transport any traveller who is a Palestinian refugee in Syria to Lebanon no matter the reason and regardless of the documents or IDs that they hold”, threatening to penalise airlines in case of non-compliance.
In doing so, Lebanon has put itself in violation of international law’s non-refoulement principle, which prohibits the return of individuals to a situation where they would be at risk of persecution or serious human rights abuses.
The leaked document is dated May 3, the same day 41 Palestinian refugees from Syria were arrested in Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri airport on the charge that they were holding fake Libyan visas – which is difficult to verify since Libya does not have an embassy in Lebanon. The next day, they were returned to Syria.
“This measure was implemented after the 41 refugees were caught with fake visas, and was effective for one week only” to prevent such actions from happening again, Khalil Gebara, adviser to the Ministry of Interior, told Al Jazeera. But Khairunissa Dhala, refugee researcher at Amnesty International, argued that they were returned to Syria “because if they got arrested as illegal migrants in Europe”, where they were expected to go after reaching Libya, “they would have been sent back to Lebanon, as Syria is at war”.
Normally, Palestinian refugees from Syria entering Lebanon are granted a transit visa that they turn into a one- or two-year residency permit. But Amnesty’s report states that “since May, the authorities have refused to renew visas for some Palestinian refugees without any reason given”.
Amnesty reported several cases of people going back to Syria to register births, get documents for residency permit renewal, or to take school exams without being allowed back to Lebanon. These policies have resulted in many families being separated. Gebara said that the Lebanese authorities were working closely with UNRWA – the UN agency monitoring Palestinian refugees – to help Palestinian refugees from Syria, especially with regard to family reunification.
Lebanon has been struggling to cope with the large influx of refugees from Syria, who account for at least one-third of the Lebanese population. Already in a dire economic situation, the refugee crisis has cost the 10,400sqr km country approximately $2.5bn just last year. So far, Lebanon has received only 23 percent of the international funding it was promised to handle refugees, while the United States and the European Union have welcomed a derisory small number of them on their soils. Other Middle Eastern countries have also restricted access. Palestinian refugees from Syria have been denied entry to Jordan since 2012, according to Amnesty International.