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Nightmare Realized: Syrians Face Mass Forced Deportations from Lebanon

In April 2023, Lebanon witnessed a severe deterioration in its previous approach to dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, marked by widespread arrests and forced deportations conducted by the Lebanese armed forces, fueled by hate speech and misinformation.

Lebanese authorities have long been resistant to the idea of hosting Syrian refugees in the country. They have placed roadblocks around Syrians’ access to legal residency permits, registrations with UNHCR, and their ability to work, while also sporadically implementing return plans and conducting forced deportations. However, in April 2023, Lebanon witnessed a severe deterioration in its previous approach to dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, marked by widespread arrests and forced deportations conducted by the Lebanese armed forces, which were fueled by xenophobic calls for the return of Syrian refugees. This change of tone by political and government actors happened overnight, with targeted propaganda attacks on refugees becoming rampant, sparking fear of forced deportations to follow amongst Syrian refugees. These fears were alarmingly realized as hundreds of Syrians were forcibly deported within the span of a month, with the campaign still ongoing at the time of writing. 

Background and current issue

Lebanon has always lacked a clear legal framework for asylum seekers and refugees, and authorities are keen to remind the international community that Lebanon is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention. Over the years, Lebanon has engaged in a series of operational agreements with the UNHCR, however, the policies and practices targeting refugees are regularly changed or arbitrarily ignored when politically expedient. 

In January 2015, the General Directorate of General Security (GSO) instituted new residency regulations allowing for the regularization of Syrians if they met one of two criteria: having a Lebanese employment sponsor, or a certificate of registration with the UNHCR. But just a few months later, in May 2015, the Lebanese government issued a directive to the UNHCR to stop registering Syrian refugees after the number of refugees registered with the agency came to exceed one million. This decision effectively meant that any Syrian who was not registered with the UNHCR by January 1, 2015 could only rely on a Lebanese sponsor or a few other complex and difficult to access residency schemes, which resulted in many refugees lacking legal residence permits. However, the GSO’s decision was overturned in 2018 by the State Council, Lebanon’s administrative court, which found that the Council of Ministers and not the GSO has the authority to determine entry and residency requirements.

Despite this ruling, the GSO did not cancel its decision, nor did the government security bodies stop issuing additional entry and residency decisions. In 2019, the Supreme Defense Council, chaired by the president and responsible for implementing Lebanon’s defense policies, issued additional decisions around Syrian refugees, one of which was to deport those who entered through irregular crossings. The decisions of the Supreme Defense Council are usually kept secret, however, the council’s meeting agenda stated that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the security situation, the smuggling of goods and people across borders, and unauthorized labor, and requested that the relevant ministries take the necessary measures to implement the decisions. Shortly thereafter, the GSO also issued a decision to deport anyone who had entered through irregular crossings after April 24, 2019. 

Both rights groups documented dozens of cases of arbitrary arrest, torture, enforced disappearance and executions of returnees to Syria from various countries of refuge, clearly evidencing that Syria remains unsafe for returns.

These decisions resulted in the first push for massive returns, despite the fact that they were illegitimate decisions, as per the 2018 ruling of the State Council. Over 2,700 Syrians were deported between May and August 2019, and Human Rights Watch documented at least three cases of returnees who were detained by the Syrian regime upon their return. By September 19, 2021, 6,345 Syrian refugees had been deported by the GSO based on this decision as well. Lebanese authorities maintained that these returns were voluntary, whereby Syrians could apply to return at registration offices, then the list of names would be shared with Syrian authorities for approval before their return, to be coordinated by General Security. However, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch disputed the claims that returns were voluntary due to coercive measures and lack of adequate support and protection in Lebanon. These coercive measures included the demolition of semi-permanent shelters in refugee camps, discriminatory curfews, harassment and anti-refugee rhetoric. Amnesty also reported that returnees had to undergo security clearance when returning to their areas in Syria, which exposed them to a risk of torture, enforced disappearance, and murder. Both rights groups documented dozens of cases of arbitrary arrest, torture, enforced disappearance and executions of returnees to Syria from various countries of refuge, clearly evidencing that Syria remains unsafe for returns.

The most recent return plan was announced by caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine in July 2022 with the stated goal of returning 15,000 refugees per month. However, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati was dissatisfied with this plan and accused Charafeddine of acting beyond his scope of responsibilities. Rights groups, the UNHCR, and donor states also publicly opposed the return plan and warned Lebanese authorities about the potential for refoulement. Whatever pressures were exerted on Lebanese authorities appear to have been effective as the government repeatedly promised that returns would be strictly voluntary, ultimately coordinating only two return convoys with a total of roughly 800 returnees.

Sudden raids and forced deportation en masse

As of the start of April 2023, this cautious approach and emphasis on voluntary return has been completely overturned, with an unprecedented wave of arrests and forced deportations in several locations across Lebanon. These deportations differ from the ones in previous years as they were carried out by the Lebanese Armed Forces rather than the General Security. According to Aya Majzoub, MENA Deputy Regional Director at Amnesty International, “The GSO always had a flawed deportation process, but refugees often had the chance to reach out to the UNHCR and sometimes the deportations would be halted. However, this doesn’t exist now with the Lebanese army; they are taking Syrian refugees from their homes and straight to the border.” 

Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), a refugee-led rights organization, has documented over 800 cases of arbitrary arrests across Lebanon and at least 336 deportations since the beginning of April 2023, which include several minors and two members of the LGBTQ+ community. ACHR’s Executive Director Mohammad Hasan echoed Majzoub’s concerns around the army conducting the deportations rather than the GSO for several reasons. First, the GSO does not typically deport Syrians who have a certificate of registration with the UNHCR or a residency permit—whether valid or expired—so long as it indicates that they entered Lebanon before April 24, 2019, whereas ACHR documented several cases of Syrians who were deported by the army despite having a UNHCR certificate or expired residency permit (there are no reported cases of deportations of persons possessing current residency permits). Additionally, the GSO is aware of the principle of non-refoulement and yet, according to Hasan, it still “forces deportees to sign a paper stating that they are returning voluntarily” to avoid any scrutiny around deportations. This approach does not ensure that returns are actually voluntary, but it is more measured and time consuming than the army’s current practice, allowing more opportunities for intervention before deportation. 

On the other hand, Hasan states that “the army does not seem concerned with the principles of international law” and that, in addition to the harassment and abuse many suffered during their arrest and deportation by the army, all those forcibly returned to Syria were directly handed over to Syrian authorities. Amnesty International has documented at least four deportees who were detained in Syria, while MENA Rights Group has recorded two cases of enforced disappearances and has filed appeals on their behalf to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. The exact number of persons detained or at risk is unknown as detentions can often take place months after the person has returned.

Unprecedented anti-refugee rhetoric

This sudden change in Lebanon’s position and practices on deportations followed a startling rise in misinformation, hate speech, and scapegoating by Lebanese authorities, political parties, and affiliated media during the first few months of 2023. Majzoub commented that the scapegoating of Syrian refugees and the calls for their return is nothing new, however “the strength of the calls is something that Amnesty hasn’t seen before and they are coming from people who didn’t share these views before.” 

This sudden change in Lebanon’s position and practices on deportations followed a startling rise in misinformation, hate speech, and scapegoating by Lebanese authorities, political parties, and affiliated media during the first few months of 2023.

As part of a Swiss-funded study researching the transnational impact of refugee policy, the research team of which the authors of the article are part of has been documenting anti-refugee policy and rhetoric in Lebanon and in the EU, and how they influence each other. The research analyzed the distribution of speech categories concerning refugees from 2017 to 2023 in political Twitter accounts and Lebanese media outlets. The findings revealed a rise in hate speech between 2022 and 2023, comprising around 18 percent of all instances. Although significant, this made up a relatively smaller portion of the overall discourse on refugees. Instances of misinformation and scapegoating constituted the largest portion, accounting for approximately 48 percent of all instances. This category underscores the prevalence of misinformation and the tendency of Lebanese politicians to blame refugees. 

In April 2023, a wave of propaganda videos swept through Lebanon, exploiting the harsh living conditions experienced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon as grounds for urging their return to Syria in search of better opportunities. The videos propagated the notion that the majority of Syria is now safe for refugees, painting a distorted picture of prosperity awaiting them in their home country compared to their situation in Lebanon. Lebanese political figures have contributed to this narrative, branding the living conditions of Syrian refugees as “camps of humiliation,” and arguing that the compassionate course of action to alleviate their suffering is to advocate for their repatriation to Syria.

As a result, a widespread Twitter movement has emerged, marked by hashtags such as #analibnani (#IamLebanese) and #yestothereturn, appealing to the Lebanese public to rally behind the cause of Syrian refugees’ return. The prevailing sentiment behind these campaigns stems from the belief that Lebanese citizens are being deprived of fundamental necessities like bread, employment, water, and more because Lebanon’s resources are being used up by Syrians, despite the fact that international donors have provided significant aid to support Lebanese institutions, infrastructure, and vulnerable populations with the intent of balancing the aid and protection services provided to refugees. The head of Lebanon’s federation of Trade Unions, Maroun al Khouli, has also launched the national campaign to “Liberate Lebanon from the Syrian Demographic Occupation,” a fear-driven campaign portraying Syrian refugees as occupiers that seek to turn Lebanon into “Greater Syria.” 

Rampant misinformation has also proliferated around the amount of humanitarian aid received by Syrian refugees and the legality of their presence in Lebanon, both of which have been propagated extensively by Lebanese authorities and politicians

Rampant misinformation has also proliferated around the amount of humanitarian aid received by Syrian refugees and the legality of their presence in Lebanon, both of which have been propagated extensively by Lebanese authorities and politicians. Much of the Lebanese public are under the impression that Syrian refugees earn hundreds of dollars in humanitarian aid while vulnerable Lebanese go hungry, a falsity that has been spread extensively by Lebanese politicians. Some have gone as far as asserting that Syrian refugees earn $400 a month from the UNHCR in addition to being paid under the table by foreign organizations as part of a conspiracy to “cause anarchy” in Lebanon. In reality, many refugees do not qualify for assistance at all, and those who do have been receiving a maximum of $80 a month distributed in Lebanese lira. UNHCR has announced on May 23, 2023 that they will finally start distributing aid in dollars with a new ceiling of $125 per family for those who qualify.

Politicians have widely claimed that Syrian refugees are present in Lebanon illegally since over 80 percent of Syrian refugees lack residency permits, conveniently omitting the many obstacles that prevent refugees from obtaining and renewing their residency permits. An anonymous Syrian researcher and activist in Lebanon stated that the requirements for obtaining a residency permit are almost impossible to meet: “you need proof of funds, but you must also sign a guarantee not to work. You need a valid ID from the Syrian government or the Syrian embassy in Lebanon,” which can be difficult for many Syrians to obtain due to costs or security risks associated with going to the Syrian embassy”, as six Syrians were arrested at the Syrian Embassy in 2021 and later released after a public campaign. “You also need a rental contract, which many landlords do not want to provide because then they have to pay higher taxes on the rented apartment.” Even if all the necessary criteria to obtain a residency permit are met, applications are often rejected or forced to meet additional, arbitrarily imposed requirements, such as requiring the applicant to obtain a sponsor even for those who are exempt. The Syrian activist stated that even though she has all the required documents to renew her residency permit, she still has to pay a bribe on top of the application fee in order to obtain it.

Other much more harmful claims about refugees include allegations that they are committing the majority of crimes in the country and are overrepresented in the prison population—again distorting data by categorizing those without legal residencies as criminals and obfuscating the fact that Syrian refugees are more often the victims of arbitrary arrests in Lebanon. Government officials have now escalated this rhetoric and are considering the deportation of the 1,800 Syrians imprisoned in Lebanon back to Syria, 82 percent of whom have not undergone trial and have been held in lengthy pretrial detentions, including 143 minors. Caretaker Justice Minister Henry Khoury reportedly proposed that it would be easier to return the detainees who also have cases pending against them in Syria, conveniently overlooking the fact that these refugees would be the most likely to face persecution, torture, and other grave abuses if returned.

Global North losing moral ground 

In the past, rights groups and activists often relied on pressure from international stakeholders and donors to stop deportations and reinforce the importance of non-refoulement in Lebanon. Unfortunately, effective political pressure is evaporating as a rising number of EU governments are promoting problematic strategies to deal with asylum seekers and refugees at their borders and within them. Over the past few years, EU decision makers have focused on decreasing asylum access to their countries by tightening border security and externalizing refugee hosting responsibilities. A number of EU countries have also recently announced policies that undermine refugee rights: Denmark has removed protection status for Syrian refugees from Damascus, both Denmark and the UK are initiating plans to transfer refugees to camps in Rwanda, and life-threatening pushbacks at land and sea by state border control agents and other EU funded agencies have taken place for years with near impunity.

Effective political pressure is evaporating as a rising number of EU governments are promoting problematic strategies to deal with asylum seekers and refugees at their borders and within them. 

Despite repeated calls by regional refugee-hosting countries and refugee protection organizations for increased resettlement in Europe and safe pathways to asylum, the EU’s policy has been to crack down on irregular migration and to continue pushing unstable neighboring countries to bear the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis. The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum has been heavily criticized for focusing its efforts on border controls and defending the “Fortress of Europe” from irregular migration rather than creating an EU-wide rights based approach to asylum. As per a Euro-Med Human Rights researcher, Michela Pugliese, such policies ignore the fact that, without the EU facilitating safe pathways to access asylum in Europe, “irregular pathways are the only routes that Europe has for asylum seekers to arrive.” 

In this global context, Lebanese officials are emboldened to violate refugee rights and return refugees to Syria despite the significant risk of persecution. Lebanese authorities and politicians from various parties have been increasingly pointing to the EU’s anti-refugee policies to support their own refugee rights violations: on March 30, 2023, the Lebanese Forces party announced on Twitter that they had discussed the situation of Syrian refugees with European leaders and motivated them to advance a resolution in the European Parliament on the subject of refugee returns to Syria, though no evidence of such a proposal could be found in European Parliament documents. On April 25, Sami Gemayel, the head of the Kataeb party, stated: “countries that are leaders in human rights, such as Sweden and Denmark, are deporting Syrian refugees, so it is time for us to change the way we handle this issue.” On April 26, former Interior Minister Marwan Charbel appeared on both Tele Liban, a state-owned TV station, and Al-Manar, a Hezbollah-affiliated TV station, condemning Western pressure to keep Syrian refugees in Lebanon, saying: “they accuse us of being racist. No, my friends. You are racists because you prevent them from coming to Europe. We welcomed them. By all means, you should welcome them now.” He also warned that if Lebanon reaches its limits, the country will open the doors and allow irregular migration out of Lebanon.

Pressure from international and local rights organizations has been met with contempt and false accusations by politicians. In response to the condemnation of these deportations by Amnesty International, Free Patriotic Movement representative George Atallah regarded the statement as part of a “conspiracy to stop the Lebanese Army from enforcing the law” and called on the human rights organization to mind their own business and stop interfering in Lebanon’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, Army Commander Joseph Aoun who was responsible for ordering the mass raids and deportations of Syrian refugees stated in a briefing that the army respects human rights insofar as they do not interfere with national interests, further demonstrating Lebanon’s sudden departure from any commitment to voluntary returns and respect for its international human rights obligations.

Global reforms needed to counter anti-refugee policies

Lebanon’s widespread scapegoating campaign which preceded the mass deportations was extremely dangerous in and of itself, fueling social tensions and violence between refugee and host communities. Reports of violent attacks and armed robberies of refugees by Lebanese civilians became widespread along with growing intolerance and hate speech toward refugees by the general public proliferated on social media. 

Several Syrian refugees interviewed for this article attested that the Syrian refugee community in Lebanon is currently living in a state of perpetual fear, many of them afraid to leave their homes for fear of deportation. One source stated that refugees employed or volunteering with local organizations have been afraid to go to the office or undertake field data collection, making their work—documenting violations of refugee rights and providing humanitarian aid to those in need—all the more difficult. 

To combat these consequences, human rights organizations are calling on Lebanon to ensure the respect for the principle of non-refoulement and cease summary deportations of Syrian refugees, and for the international community to, likewise, fulfill its responsibility in sharing obligations by increasing opportunities for resettlement and safe pathways to asylum. They are also calling on the UNHCR to increase transparency and cooperation with local and international NGOs to allow for a more effective response to emergency situations, such as mass deportations. But, for some refugees who have already been forcibly deported, it is already too late. Many have already been apprehended by Syrian authorities, notorious for their extensive and persistent employment of torture and enforced disappearances throughout the process of detention and interrogation. For the refugees still in Lebanon, the harm caused by widespread misinformation and scapegoating will also have long-term ramifications. The Syrian activist interviewed by TIMEP stated “even if the deportations are stopped, what will remain is the ideas and misinformation that were spread by the government and political actors and the tensions they built up between refugee and host communities. What will remain is the green light for Lebanon to violate human rights and its international legal obligations at any point.”

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.

Melissa Safi is a postgraduate professional with a strong background in human rights research in the Middle East and North Africa region.


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