‘State of terror’ hangs over Syrians in Lebanon amid deportations

Some 800,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UNHCR after fleeing the civil war that began in 2011 amid protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian refugees
Syrian refugee men staying in Lebanon use their phones to film other refugees who wait at a gathering point to cross back into Syria, in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal [File: Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

The Lebanese government has come under heavy criticism from activists and rights groups amid reports of Syrian refugees being detained and deported back to the war-torn nation.

On Tuesday, the Lebanese interior ministry decreed that all municipalities should conduct a survey to record the Syrians living there and to make sure they were documented before carrying out any transactions with them, including renting property to them.

Munza Aslan, a Syrian activist based in Lebanon, said a “state of terror” hangs over all Syrians in Lebanon.

“This feeling of panic accompanies the Syrian refugees who live in camps or rented houses. Everyone is waiting for their turn when the Lebanese army raids their tents or homes. Fear controls people,” she told Al Jazeera from Beqaa.

Syrian refugee children play outside their family tents at a Syrian refugee camp in Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon [File: Bilal Hussein/AP Photo]

Some 800,000 refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon, after fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Syria that erupted when President Bashar al-Assad used brutal violence to try to quell protests against him in 2011. At one point, Lebanon – a nation of some 5 million – hosted around 1.2 million registered refugees.

According to Aslan, the Lebanese army does not distinguish between people who have residencies in the country and those who do not have official papers.

“The lack of distinction practised by the Lebanese authorities and the lack of a system that explains who will be arrested makes everyone afraid to leave their homes,” she said.

For people living in refugee camps, the situation was even more perilous, she added.

“Men in the camps have been leaving during the day since the start of the arrests … sitting on the streets in fear the Lebanese army will raid their camp and deport them … especially since most of the Syrian refugees in the camps don’t have official papers and valid residence permits,” Aslan said.

International organisations such as Amnesty International have also raised concerns, saying those being deported face the risk of “torture or prosecution”.

“It is extremely alarming to see the army deciding the fate of refugees, without respecting due process or allowing those facing deportation to challenge their removal in court or seek protection. No refugee should be sent back to a place where their life will be at risk,” Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said last month.

In November last year, Lebanon started what it called the “voluntary” repatriation of hundreds of Syrians, a move that led to objections by human rights organisations and the United Nations.

‘Political refugees’

Members of Lebanon’s government and other high-ranking officials have recently renewed calls for Syrian refugees to be sent back.

According to Saudi Arabia-based Arab News, President Michel Aoun on Sunday at an event for his party, the Freedom Patriotic Movement, called Syrians in the country “security refugees and not political refugees”.

“European countries are imposing illegal things on us. They want to integrate the Syrian refugees into the Lebanese society,” he said, Arab News reported.

Protesters hold signs reading "With the refugees against the media frenzy and racist campaigns" and "The army's place is on the borders, not in the refugee camps" in Arabic at a workers' day march held by leftist groups in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, May 1, 2023.
Protesters hold signs reading ‘With refugees against the media frenzy and racist campaigns’, and ‘The army’s place is on the borders, not in the refugee camps’, in Arabic at a workers’ day march by leftist groups in Beirut, Lebanon, May 1, 2023 [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai last month said the refugees were “draining state resources” and urged the parliament to work out a plan to send them back to Syria.

Activist Aslan, who has residency and asylum papers to stay in the country legally, says she is afraid.

“When the Lebanese army arrests refugees, it deports them immediately … Sometimes they hand them over to the Syrian Army’s Fourth Armored Division, which demands a ransom from the detainees’ families for their return,” she said.

“I’m afraid this will happen to me – I have no family left in Syria. My father was arrested and tortured to death [in Syria], and his body was just thrown away in July 2012. I can’t go back there with the regime that killed my family still there.

“I don’t mind living on the street in my country, but are there international guarantees that I will not be arrested and killed like my father was?”

Source: Al Jazeera