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Fragile Sanctuary: Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Face Abuse and Deportation

Syrian refugees seeking safety in Lebanon targeted in an escalating campaign of discrimination, violence, and potential deportation.

On February 23, 20-year-old Mohammad Zaid al-Hariri and his friend Rabih al-Othman were riding to work on Rabih’s motorcycle when they saw a checkpoint up ahead. Lebanese authorities had been confiscating motorcycles belonging to Syrians lacking residency permits as part of a series of discriminatory orders issued by caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi. The pair turned around to avoid the checkpoint and began driving off when a police officer jumped out from behind some cars and kicked the motorcycle, killing Mohammad and injuring Rabih.

This is just one example of the rampant violence, harassment, and insecurity Syrian refugees have been suffering in Lebanon over the past few months. For the second consecutive year, in the leadup to the annual Brussels donor Conference for Syria, which took place on May 27, Syrian refugees have been the target of a campaign of hate speech, discriminatory policies, and the very real threat of deportation. Syrian-owned businesses have been shuttered and workers arrested for lacking legal documents, municipalities across the country have cracked down on Syrian residents with thousands facing eviction, and tensions between the Lebanese host community and Syrian refugees have reached a boiling point. 

The resumption of forced deportations

Since the beginning of 2024, reports began circulating that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Directorate of General Security (GSO) have resumed raids and deportations against Syrian refugee communities, with international and local NGOs documenting several deportations to date. 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.” While Lebanon has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, the state is still bound by the customary international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the deportation of any person who faces the risk of persecution in their home country. Despite this obligation, there have been several high-profile cases of Syrian refugees who are activists, opposition members, or defectors who have been deported or threatened with deportation, even though their lives may be at risk, as they face torture, arbitrary detention, or enforced disappearance in Syria. 

While Lebanon has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, the state is still bound by the customary international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the deportation of any person who faces the risk of persecution in their home country

Unlike last year when the LAF conducted widespread raids and deportations, only a few LAF-led deportations have been documented this year, though reduced reporting may also be attributed to organizations’ reduced capacities to document these incidents, especially refugee-led organizations whose staff members are often themselves refugees and face fears of deportations. Additionally, the LAF continues to conduct pushbacks at sea and land borders, as these practices are broadly considered “border management” rather than deportations. The Executive Director of Cedar Center for Legal Studies, Saadeddine Shatila, says that it is mostly the GSO, the body that is authorized to deal with deportations, that has been conducting deportations, even though the LAF has been involved in some cases. For example, five boats carrying refugees were recently pushed back from the coast of Cyprus to Lebanon and one of these boats was stopped by LAF according to Shatila. “We documented at least six arrests and it is unknown whether those arrested will be deported or not,” he said.

In an interview with refugee-led NGO Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), the organization stated that they have documented the LAF picking up and deporting Syrians in several busloads, giving them no opportunity to contact their families or lawyers to ask for support. ACHR further stated that while last year’s LAF-led deportations dropped Syrians off at the border, enabling many to re-enter with the help of smugglers, this year, several deportees have been dropped off in Damascus instead.

Startlingly, the arrests and deportations—or threatened deportations—that the LAF and GSO are undertaking have included persons who face a high risk of torture and persecution should they return to Syria. ACHR has reported that at least 15 people were arrested by the LAF between January 9 and 10 at Al-Madfoun checkpoint in North Lebanon and deported to Syria. Among them was Rafaat Al Faleh, an army defector who had fled to Lebanon with his family in 2020. On February 6, his family learned that he had been transferred to Syria. It was only on May 14 that his family was finally able to visit him at Sednaya prison in Syria. 

Similarly, the GSO also deported Muaz al-Waer, a member of the Syrian opposition, despite attempted interventions by Cedar Center who informed the GSO of the danger al-Waer faces. He was deported after having served a prison sentence, which led four of his relatives including his two brothers, also prisoners in Roumieh prison, to attempt suicide for fear of being deported as well. Syrian detainees are particularly terrified of potential forced deportation at the end of the prison sentences, as Lebanese authorities have been considering plans to coordinate with the Syrian regime for the return of Syrian prisoners. Cedar Center reported two other cases where the GSO had issued deportation notices to at-risk activists and opposition members, but the notices were later withdrawn due to public pressure. 

It has also been reported that the GSO has been failing to follow its own deportation policies. To be considered legally present in Lebanon, Syrian refugees must have been registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before 2015, or they must possess a residency permit, which any refugee who entered before April 2019 is technically eligible for. Yet, both Cedar Center’s Shatila and Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon researcher Ramzi Kaiss stated that the GSO has been deporting or threatening to deport refugees despite having valid UNHCR registration. ACHR further stated that the GSO has been rejecting residency applications, even for those who entered before 2019 and have all the required documentation. This flouting of rules and procedures has left refugees feeling extremely insecure and places them at increased risk of deportation.

Recurring anti-refugee campaigns and discriminatory policies

Just as in early 2023, this year’s push for returns and forced deportations was bolstered by an anti-refugee campaign replete with hate speech and scapegoating proliferated by politicians, state officials, and the traditional media. Caretaker Minister of Social Affairs Hector Hajjar made statements on television and at public convenings claiming that there was an “international conspiracy” to keep refugees in Lebanon, further proclaiming that this situation had become “a matter of life and death for the diverse pluralistic Lebanon that we know today and poses an existential crisis.” 

In the media, MTV, one of Lebanon’s main television channels, has aired an advertisement campaign called “UNdo the Damage” sponsored by a Lebanese NGO, World House of Lebanon. The name of the campaign is meant to imply that the United Nations is harming Lebanon by supporting the continued hosting of Syrian refugees in the country. The advertisements are xenophobic and replete with misinformation. In one ad, a purported refugee in Lebanon introduces his seven children, all born within the last seven years, and states his wife is pregnant with the eighth who will be named “Asma if she’s a girl, or Bashar if he’s a boy,” after Syria’s first lady and president, implying that the refugees are also pro-regime. In another, a young Syrian boy says both his parents are Syrian but that he was told he would soon become Lebanese—a message intended to play on local fears that Lebanon’s demographics will change and affect the sectarian system of representation. It was discovered that most of the images for those advertisements featured displaced Syrians inside Syria, not in Lebanon. In another incident, a well known television reporter Rachel Karam appeared on a podcast where she stated that the presence of displaced Syrians was more dangerous to Lebanon than the Israeli threat, despite the fact that Israel has been bombing Lebanon for the past seven months, killing and injuring many civilians, including several journalists. 

This anti-refugee campaign has helped reignite anger and resentment among the Lebanese public toward the refugee population. This was exacerbated by the kidnapping and murder of Lebanese Forces member Pascal Sleiman whose body was found in Syria near the Lebanese border, as well as another murder of an elderly man during an armed robbery of his home in Beirut. Both killings have been blamed on the Syrian populace as a whole, with the caretaker minister of interior stating that “the Syrian presence is unacceptable and Lebanon cannot tolerate it, and we see that there are many crimes committed by Syrians.” As a result, tensions between Lebanese and Syrians have peaked, with several videos circulating in the past month showing attacks on Syrians and Lebanese vigilantes making announcements on megaphones calling on them to leave certain areas, and even demonstrating in front of some schools and harassing Syrian children to prevent them from attending their classes.

Making matters all the more untenable, the Lebanese authorities from across all political parties have supported the push for refugee returns, and have been implementing discriminatory policies affecting refugees, including imposing curfews, and restricting their ability to rent property and to work. Circulars were issued in several municipalities “asking citizens to report Syrian individuals living within their jurisdiction to verify their identity papers and threatening to expel them.” With only 17 percent of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees possessing legal residency permits, this leaves the vast majority in a highly precarious situation. 

The Lebanese government has announced their intention to conduct a nationwide survey of Syrian refugees in the country to determine what portion of the population is truly “displaced.” In addition, on May 9, the GSO made a vague announcement on its Facebook page stating that residency permits will no longer be renewed based on “previous criteria,” while not providing any information as to the new requirements for obtaining a residency permit. Human Rights Watch’s Ramzi Kaiss stated that these plans are populist and impracticable, and that had the Lebanese government truly wanted a realistic plan for Syrians in Lebanon “they would have reformed the regulations to properly assess who is a refugee and who is a migrant, and would have set specialized pathways for each group to seek work visas in Lebanon or to have protected refugee status.”

Following the West’s “moral lead” 

Advocates for refugee rights previously relied on the influence of donors and stakeholders from the Global North to push Lebanon to respect refugee rights. However, the leverage these countries used to have to impact Lebanese policy has diminished significantly. In a study on the interrelatedness of refugee return policy, preliminary findings have indicated that European stakeholders and donors to Lebanon have experienced a reduced ability to ensure rule of law and respect for the principle of non-refoulement. The two main reasons for this declining influence were the European Union’s own practices of pushbacks and externalization which set a poor example for their treatment of refugees, and the European Union’s (EU) decreased funding to the Lebanese government. 

The EU will be providing funding directly to the agencies that have been violating human rights and the principle of non-refoulement to prevent Syrian refugees from reaching their own countries

The Lebanese authorities have been pressuring the international community to provide more funding to Lebanon, to support the needs of the refugee population as well as Lebanon’s army and security apparatuses to maintain border control and “prevent transgressions,” implying that without this funding, refugees may make their way from Lebanon to Europe. The European Union’s international agreements include clauses for the protection of human rights, which “enable the EU to ensure that it does not contribute to any human rights violations, and thereby to respect human rights in its external action. They do this by permitting the EU to suspend obligations which, if performed, would risk contributing to those violations.” However, double standards in the application of these policies, with the EU’s own violations of refugee rights and a lack of true burden sharing in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, have left donor states with less leverage and emboldened violations by recipient states, including Lebanon.

When the Lebanese state laxed its border control efforts and began refusing the return of boats of refugees that had reached Cyprus’s shores, the EU agreed to compromise. On May 2, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that they will be providing Lebanon with €1 billion in funding to strengthen public services and support “the Lebanese Armed Forces and other security forces with equipment and training for border management and to fight against smuggling.” In other words, the EU will be providing funding directly to the agencies that have been violating human rights and the principle of non-refoulement to prevent Syrian refugees from reaching their own countries. Similar agreements have recently been struck between the EU and Egypt and Tunisia, where both countries have also engaged in violations of refugees and migrants rights, indicating a global shift and turning away from rule of law. 

No additional details have been provided as to the criteria Lebanon will be implementing to determine which Syrian refugees qualify as “displaced” under the new plan, how assessments will be coordinated, or whether there will be any impartial monitoring or oversight, whether by NGOs or UN agencies. What is clear, however, is that the globally deteriorating respect for refugee rights and the principle of non-refoulement have left Syrian refugees in a state of constant insecurity and vulnerability. While regional governments appear to be engaged in a game of realpolitik and a tug of war of political self-interest, the situation for Syrian refugees, especially those at high risk of torture and persecution, is no game at all, but a matter of life or death. 

Nadine Kheshen is a Legal Associate at TIMEP and a Principle Member of a SNIS funded academic study on the Interrelatedness of Refugee Return Policy across North/South Divides. She is an international criminal and human rights lawyer who has been working on conflict and human rights in the Middle East since 2016.


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