In the summer of 2022, the Lebanese government initiated a policy for mass returns of Syrian refugees to Syria, modeled after its policy implemented in 2019 which resulted in the return of thousands of displaced Syrians. Government officials promised that returns would be voluntary, and that anyone with a security concern would be able to appeal to remain in Lebanon. However, given the complex and opaque legal framework for refugees and asylum seekers in the country, and the fact that Syria is still considered unsafe by human rights organizations, the situation of returnees must be closely monitored to protect them against forced or coerced returns.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, over a million Syrian refugees fled to neighboring Lebanon, making Lebanon the largest refugee-hosting nation per capita in the world. The country has neither ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor the 1967 Additional Protocol—just like most countries in the Middle East. In addition, Lebanon has only one domestic law pertaining to asylum that is highly politicized and falls short of due process standards, leading to its disregard among refugee advocates. Adding to these challenges is the informal relationship between the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which allows Lebanon to make unilateral changes affecting refugees. Only a fraction of refugees have been able to obtain temporary residencies, while the majority live under constant risk of being caught without papers. Despite these sparse legal protections, Lebanon is obligated to respect the international customary legal principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits any country from deporting any person to a country where they face the threat of persecution. Non-governmental organizations and civil society advocates are active on the ground through monitoring and advocacy to ensure the Lebanese authorities do not forcibly deport refugees.
Lebanon and the UNHCR: A long history
From the 1940s until the 1960s, Lebanon was a strong proponent for the rights and protection of refugees and migrants. In 1949, it helped create the UNHCR, the UN agency responsible for ensuring the right of asylum and providing protection services and humanitarian assistance to refugees around the world. Lebanon was even an active participant in the formation of the 1967 Additional Protocol, which expanded the application of the Refugee Convention to include situations occurring after January 1, 1951 and increased state cooperation with the UNHCR.
Lebanon’s moral lead on refugee rights began to waver by the time the Additional Protocol was finalized, due in part to the rising number of Palestinian refugees in the country at that time. The Lebanese civil war effectively shelved the question of Lebanon’s commitment to refugee rights. The end of the war further entrenched the Lebanese authorities’ unwillingness to integrate or naturalize Palestinian refugees, as the government feared this would alter the country’s demographics and upset power-sharing agreements.
The 1951 Refugee Convention does not obligate refugee-hosting countries to permanently resettle refugees in their territory. Regardless, Lebanon has avoided ratifying it, and has instead implemented tenuous, ad-hoc agreements with the UNHCR for its operations in the country. In response to the increase of Iraqi refugees to Lebanon in 2003, the Lebanese government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the UNHCR, in which Lebanon declared that it was not a country of asylum, but merely a country of transit for those seeking asylum in third countries. The MoU required UNHCR to register refugees in cooperation with Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security to provide refugees with one-year temporary residencies. UNHCR was saddled with the responsibility of resettling refugees within that one-year period—a hard task as resettlement is a lengthy process and, globally, less than 1 percent of refugees manage to be resettled each year.
In 2011, when thousands of Syrians fleeing war and persecution began entering Lebanon, the 2003 MoU had not been updated, and the UNHCR was left to operate without a formal agreement in Lebanon. The UN agency adopted the practice of issuing registration cards to Syrian refugees, which they could then take to the General Security to be issued a temporary residency. But by 2015, when the number of refugees came to exceed 1 million, the government directed UNHCR to stop registering refugees and limited residency permits to those who could show proof that they had entered Lebanon before January 1, 2015. This decision was later expanded to include those who entered before April 24, 2019. But without any mechanism to ensure residency permits were properly issued, refugees often dealt with unfair practices by General Security agents, such as arbitrarily requiring additional documents or fees, and some even denying issuing permits without justification. Due to these volatile policies and growing distrust toward General Security, as well as for financial reasons, only 16 percent of refugees over the age of 15 currently hold legal residencies in Lebanon, leaving the majority under constant threat of potential deportation if caught by authorities.
An asylum process in disarray
Lebanon’s singular political asylum law is contained in Article 26 of the 1962 Law on Foreigners, which is the primary legal instrument for regulating the rights and obligations of foreigners in the country. While the 1951 Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee is limited to people facing persecution in their country of nationality based on their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” Lebanon’s local law applies broadly to anyone facing punishment “for a political crime, or whose life or freedom are threatened, equally for political reasons.” Furthermore, the law does not require that the threat of persecution or punishment originate from the asylum seeker’s country of nationality—it could stem from any non-Lebanese authority.
On the other hand, Article 27 of the same law gives absolute discretion to the Asylum Committee—led by the minister of interior with members from the ministries of justice, foreign affairs, and the Directorate of General Security—in conferring or denying asylum status with no opportunity for appeal. This falls short of the standard set by the 1951 Refugee Convention under Article 32(2), requiring that decisions be reached “in accordance with due process of law,” and that asylum applicants have the opportunity to appeal before the competent authority. Under international standards of due process, a person facing trial or deliberation of their rights must have the opportunity to appear before an impartial, independent, and regularly constituted court. This principle is also iterated in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Lebanon is a party. With the Lebanese asylum committee being completely composed of government officials, and with no opportunity to appeal their decisions, the committee would have a free hand to approve or deny asylum claims depending on political saliency rather than an impartial deliberation of the law.
Asylum status was conferred only once since the law’s enactment, in the highly politicized case of Kozo Okamoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army who took part in an armed attack in an Israeli airport in 1972, killing 26 people. Okamoto was imprisoned for 13 years in Israel before being sent to Lebanon in a prisoner exchange agreement in 1985. In 2000, Japan began pressuring Lebanon for Okamoto’s extradition, along with four other members of the Red Army. Lebanon agreed to extradite all but Okamoto, who was instead granted asylum status to quell protests by pro-Palestinian groups.
Okamoto’s case appears to be the only instance that saw the application of Lebanon’s asylum law and may be the only time the asylum committee convened. The law is relatively unknown among refugee advocates and lawyers and is rarely mentioned in research and literature, except to affirm its general disuse. According to George Ghali, board member of the human rights organization ALEF, disregard for the asylum law is likely primarily due to the partisan makeup of the asylum committee and the lack of trust among refugee advocates that the law will be applied fairly and impartially. Human rights lawyer Diala Chehade echoed similar concerns, adding that there is nothing in the domestic asylum law that explains what protections would be afforded to those granted asylum.
Obligations under international law
With Lebanon’s asylum law in disuse and many refugees ineligible for the residency schemes described above, advocacy efforts to stop deportations rely primarily on the principle of non-refoulement, according to which no person may be returned to a state or territory where they face the threat of torture, persecution, ill-treatment, or other serious human rights violations. This principle has become part of the body of customary international law, meaning all states are obligated to observe this rule regardless of whether they ratified the Refugee Convention, due to its widespread acceptance and application by the majority of the global community. Lebanon is further obligated to respect and adhere to the principle of non-refoulement because it is a party to the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits refoulement under Article 3. Furthermore, Lebanon’s constitution and legal instruments, including the 1962 Law on Foreigners, affirm the primacy of international law over domestic law. As such, Lebanon cannot derogate from its obligations under the Convention Against Torture and international customary law.
In practice, advocacy to stop deportations requires refugee advocates, including UN agencies and international and local NGOs, to track and monitor developing situations and act in quick coordination. An example of this was the case of six Syrian men who were arrested at the Syrian embassy in Lebanon in August 2021 after they received calls from the embassy to pick up their passports. They were detained by the Directorate of General Security under charges of entering Lebanon illegally, as they had entered after April 24, 2019. Most of the men were activists from Daraa where assaults by the Syrian regime had intensified at the time, putting them at significant risk of arrest, torture, or other forms of persecution should they be deported. Local and international human rights organizations acted quickly, coordinating advocacy efforts to pressure the government to respect the principle of non-refoulement. In this particular case, the collective effort was successful in stopping the deportations; but not all refugees are so lucky. Lack of transparency around refugee arrests and deportations has resulted in many secretive arbitrary deportations, as documented by Access Center for Human Rights.
Pathways to a safer future for refugees
Lebanon’s latest push for mass refugee returns have not been as fruitful as authorities proclaimed; out of 1,700 people who had registered and been approved to return to Syria, only two coordinated return trips have been reported in late 2022—the first on October 26th with 511 people returning to Syria, and the second trip on November 5 in which 350 people returned. While these low numbers are a positive sign that returns are not forced, they still fall short of the requirement that returns be voluntary, safe, and dignified, as set out by UNHCR. In order for returns to be voluntary, the decision must be free and informed, meaning that returnees should have adequate information about the situation they are returning to, and should not feel pressured to return as a result of “policies that restrict refugee rights or by limiting assistance to refugee in a country of asylum which in effect affects refugees’ ability to take free decisions.”
Reports that three returnees have been detained since returning to Syria indicate that there is no guarantee of safety through these coordinated return trips, and that returnees are not sufficiently informed of the risks of returning. Additionally, push factors in Lebanon—such as discrimination, forced evictions, and lack of protections—are influencing these decisions. With the deteriorating economic and political situation in Lebanon, authorities are increasingly scapegoating refugees for the depletion of resources and the economic crisis. Though some believe that the Lebanese government’s threats of mass deportation are merely posturing to procure more funding from foreign donors, this blame-shifting can have a real impact on popular opinion and lead to rising tensions between refugee and host communities.
The situation of refugees in Lebanon is anything but straightforward, but there are several steps that could be taken to improve the status quo. The Lebanese government is unlikely to ratify the Refugee Convention anytime soon; however, nothing prevents it from implementing a formal agreement with the UNHCR that clearly outlines the procedures for assessing asylum claims and providing temporary residencies to all who qualify, for as long as needed until refugees have been resettled or their home country is safe to return to. Lebanon should revoke its 2015 decision to stop refugee registrations with the UNHCR, as well as its decision to deny residency to refugees who entered the country after April 24, 2019. In accordance with Lebanon’s obligations under international law, anyone facing the threat of deportation must have the opportunity to appear before an impartial tribunal to plead their case, and no one facing the threat of persecution or worse should be forced to return to their country. Finally, government officials must not engage in the spread of misinformation and scapegoating, which create an even more vulnerable situation for refugees.
Nadine Kheshen is an international criminal and human rights lawyer who has been working on conflict and human rights in the Middle East since 2016.