Syrian refugees in fear as Lebanon steps up deportations
An increase in raids by the Lebanese Armed Forces has left Syrian refugees in hiding, worried about being forced back.
Beirut, Lebanon – For seven years, Moussa al-Omari has been postponing his military service in Syria. But knowing he was running out of legitimate reasons, he left the country in August last year and entered Lebanon legally through the airport.
Seeing March this year was the final month of his exemption from service, al-Omari – whose name has been changed for security reasons – was hoping he would receive legal residency in Lebanon, but he said his request was rejected by the Lebanese authorities.
“They told me; ‘It’s OK, you can stay illegally. No one will bother you.’ And just three or four weeks ago, they started deporting everyone who doesn’t have a legal stay,” al-Omari told Al Jazeera.
“I’ve just been hiding at home since then.”
Twenty-five-year-old al-Omari, along with more than a million Syrians finding refuge in Lebanon – the majority of whom have been in the country since the eruption of civil war in Syria 11 years ago – are now terrified of the current crackdown on their presence.
According to UNHCR spokesperson Paula Barrachina, there have been at least 73 confirmed raids on Syrian communities across the country in April.
Barrachina also confirmed to Al Jazeera – without providing a number – that Syrians had been detained and deported, including those registered with UNHCR.
“UNHCR takes reports of deportations of Syrian refugees very seriously and is concerned about current developments,” Barrachina told Al Jazeera.
The Lebanese interior ministry has not responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
A senior humanitarian source, who was not authorised to speak publicly, told Al Jazeera that more than 1,100 Syrians have been arrested and 600 deported since the start of 2023.
Some of these deportations have left minors separated from their families.
Waad, 31, and her husband Raad – who asked for their last name to be withheld – fled to Lebanon from Deraa in southern Syria in 2006.
Their stay became legal in 2012 due to Raad gaining sponsorship through his employer, but this lasted only one year as he lost his job.
Now, amid the crackdown and deportations, Raad is struggling to get sponsorship from his new employer at a factory in Beirut.
“They need a photo of the company owner’s ID [to process the residency] but he is refusing to provide it. My husband is trying and trying but the owner isn’t helping,” Waad told Al Jazeera as her three young children noisily released their energy around her.
“Now my husband is afraid to go to his job at night because of anyone asking him for his papers,” she said, worried.
Her children are also in fear of going to school, and Waad explained that there are checkpoints set up down the road from the house in front of the only mosque in the neighbourhood, where security forces check paperwork.
“At the end of Friday prayers, they’re making a checkpoint so no one can escape it,” she explained.
Like al-Omari, Raad has avoided military service in Syria, and Waad says he is wanted. The whole family has also been vocal against the Syrian regime.
“If we were deported, he would be taken by the Syrian forces and I would never be able to see him again,” Waad said, referring to her husband.
Raad suffers from a condition that causes intense stabbing or electric shock-like pain due to a disorder of the nerves – for which he can no longer find medication in Lebanon.
“So, if the Syrian regime catches him, he won’t survive a minute when they torture him,” Waad said.
“Anyone who says there is peace in Syria knows nothing.”
Deportations of Syrians, including registered refugees, have been documented in previous years; between May 2019 and December 2020, the Lebanese Directorate of General Security confirmed that the authorities had deported 6,002 Syrians.
As rights groups have investigated, on their return, Syrian refugees, including children, are subject to unlawful or arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence or enforced disappearance.
However, Human Rights Watch Lebanon researcher Ramzi Kaiss said the number of reported raids and the manner in which the current summary deportations are taking place is unprecedented.
“We have spoken to multiple individuals, all of whom are registered with UNHCR, who were deported [recently] without being afforded the opportunity to challenge their deportation or to contact a lawyer, their families or UNHCR,” Kaiss said.
“We are also seeing a rise in anti-refugee sentiment propagated by public officials and media outlets who have resorted, on multiple occasions, to misinformation and disinformation tactics to incite against refugees.”
If al-Omari is deported to Syria, he is likely to be taken to prison from the border immediately.
“I would get a sentence of at least a year and then I would be sent to the service, which is indefinite; I have no idea when I would be released,” he explained.
For al-Omari, joining the military is not an option – he says his father and brother lost their sanity after serving for 35 and 10 years, respectively.
“My father was an aircraft mechanic … when he said something, [the officers] didn’t like; they imprisoned him and tortured him until he lost his mind,” he said.
“They released him by tossing him on the street, completely insane and they didn’t even pay him the retirement pension from the armed service.”
Al-Omari explains that his brother went through a similar situation, leaving him now unable to find work or interact with people since being released in 2020 with severe psychological damage.
As of May, the interior ministry made proof of registration in Lebanon mandatory for Syrians leasing property, adding to the existing restrictions on movement, work and social gatherings.
Kaiss told Al Jazeera the government is “resorting to incitement against refugees and illegal measures such as the summary deportations”.
“These restrictions are discriminatory [and] appear to be designed as part of a strategy to create a coercive environment for refugees in Lebanon, forcing them to consider returning to Syria, despite the risks they might face,” Kaiss said.
Usually working as a content writer, copywriter and translator, al-Omari has no option of working in Lebanon under the labour restrictions – which mostly limit work for Syrians to labour-intensive fields such as agriculture.
But even if he works online, he cannot receive his salary as he is unable to open a bank account or even money transfer services.
It is precisely due to these restrictions, including the fear of not being able to pay for rent, that al-Omari has decided to smuggle himself back into Syria within the next couple of weeks.
“I will just hide there and figure something out. I fully believe it’s going to be much safer for me than hiding in Lebanon,” he said.
“There I can hide in one of my friend’s apartments, and I know I will be safe because [the regime] are not invading houses any more looking for people like they’re doing here in Lebanon.”
Al-Omari is trying to sell his guitar in order to pay for the smuggler’s fees.
He knows he is taking a risk, but al-Omari says his current situation is untenable, and that his time in Lebanon has turned him into an insecure, introverted person.
“I became very stand-offish, because everywhere I go, I feel so alienated and discriminated by everyone and my movement is limited to its fullest extent,” he said.
He wishes he could tell everyone in Lebanon that he is not their enemy and that he did not even want to leave his country in the first place.
“If you took all of that hard work that you’re putting into hating us, me and my people, into actually solving your own bullshit you would be doing much better than you are right now.”