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Lebanon: Devastating crackdown on Syrian refugees

May 31, 2023

For weeks now, Lebanon's government has been accusing Syrians in the country of causing all of the small nation's economic problems and threatening to escalate deportations.

Syrian refugees walk as they carry containers at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon.
Many Syrian refugees live in camps in more rural parts of LebanonImage: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS

Everything happened so quickly that May morning in Lebanon. Mouad S. was heading into the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and he had deliberately passed through the nearby military checkpoint on foot. "Up until now, the Lebanese military had only been arresting Syrians on motorbikes or in cars," the 25-year-old Syrian, who doesn't want to share his real name, explained. He was soon to learn better.

Mouad was arrested because he had no valid papers on him. Those who arrested him drove Mouad to another checkpoint, where he stayed the night. The next morning he was handed over to a group of men who drove him to the Syrian-Lebanese border, where they locked him in a building.

"I didn't know who these men were, or who [which organization] they belonged to. They kept saying they wanted to deport me to Syria," he told DW.

Held for ransom?

After over a decade of civil war, the Syrian government, which has been accused of crimes against humanity and many war crimes, controls around 70% of the country. It's been suggested that Syrian returnees, who fear their government taking revenge on them for taking part in anti-government protests, would return to parts of the country still controlled by the opposition.

But these men threatened to send Mouad back into territory controlled by the Syrian government. "I was very scared," Mouad says, "because I don't know what I would face in Syria."

However three days later, he was free, thanks to $550 (€466) paid to the men holding him. Mouad was then allowed to resume his journey into Tripoli. His brother had sold a mobile phone and used his savings to pay the men. It was money the family could scarcely afford to part with.

To this day, Mouad doesn't know who the men were, whether they were people smugglers, a militia or something else entirely. "I only know that they are playing with our lives and our security, and they are clearly making money doing that," he told DW.

A convoy of buses and trucks carrying Syrian refugees with their belongings cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, .
In 2016, Mouad made his way from Syria into Lebanon via the Masnaa border crossingImage: Bilal Hussein/AP Photo/picture alliance

Increasing pressure on Syrians in Lebanon

Mouad is not the only Syrian in Lebanon with such concerns. For months now, many Syrians in Lebanon have been living in fear of deportation. Over recent years, Lebanese authorities have regularly deported Syrians using a regulation that says if they entered the country without legal permission after April 2019, they can be forced to go back. More recently, as Lebanon's economic crisis has deepened, local authorities have been cracking down even harder on Syrian refugees. This has caused a sense of panic.

"Since that happened, I'm always afraid passing a checkpoint," Mouad says. If he can, he now takes long detours for fear of being targeted again.

In recent weeks, the Lebanese army has raided refugee camps and set up checkpoints to verify the papers of non-Lebanese nationals. According to refugees and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), Syrians who didn't have legal residence were arrested and, in many cases, deported. From the start of April until mid-May, the ACHR reports that between 200 and 700 Syrians are thought to have been deported to Syrian regime areas — although they say these numbers could not be verified. 

Some Lebanese municipalities have also imposed curfews on Syrian residents. In early May, the Ministry of the Interior instructed local authorities to document every Syrian that moved into their areas. A federation of trade unions recently launched a "National Campaign to Liberate Lebanon from the Syrian Demographic Occupation." And in recent interviews, the current Social Affairs Minister, Hector Hajjar, has warned of "dangerous demographic changes," saying that locals " will become refugees in our own country."

"The mood is extremely tense," confirmed Anna Fleischer, who heads the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. "This anti-Syrian narrative — that has existed in Lebanon for years, due to a long shared history  — has escalated." Fleischer is referring to the fact that Syria occupied Lebanon between 1976 to 2005.

Scapegoating refugees

Lebanese politicians are also blaming Syrians for the country's economic crisis, which has been worsening since 2019 amid a long-lasting political vacuum. The country has not had a president for six months, and local elections originally scheduled for this month have been postponed for another year.

The political elite is using this campaign against Syrian refugees to distract from their own failings, Fleischer explained.

Additionally, she said, there are ongoing attempts in the region to normalize political relationships with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The Syrian leader was frozen out of local diplomacy for over a decade.

The campaign against Syrian refugees is also happening against the background of stalled Lebanese government negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, which has demanded consequential reforms of the local financial system before it provides more cash.

Syrian refugees gather in their vehicles getting ready to cross into Syria from the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon.
In the recent past, only a few Syrians have returned home willingly Image: Bilal Hussein/AP/picture alliance

"It's about this political system, the financial system and the banking system, just carrying on without any kind of accountability," Fleischer continued. It's far easier for local politicians to scapegoat Syrian refugees. That is even though the Syrian refugees really have nothing to do with the current financial crisis, she explaied. 

"They [the Syrians] have also been bringing a lot of international aid to Lebanon for years," Fleischer added. In fact, Lebanon actually needs Syrian workers, especially in agriculture. A lot of Syrians were already working regularly in Lebanon long before the Syrian civil war started.

Uncertain legal status

An estimated 2 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian war. Lebanon itself only has a population of around 5.5 million. Around 805,000 Syrians are registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR. In reality, many more should be but in 2015, the Lebanese government instructed the UN to stop new registrations. As a result, many Syrians in Lebanon lack the protection that comes with refugee status.

The country's Social Affairs Minister Hajjar told the Associated Press news agency that exchanging data with the UNHCR means those Syrians who are registered with the UN agency won't be deported. But many local observers doubt this, because even people with legal status in Lebanon have been forced to leave.

Returnees face imprisonment, torture

In mid-May, 20 Lebanese and international human rights groups put out a joint statement calling on Lebanon to stop its deportation of Syrians. Although the Lebanese government has not ratified international refugee conventions, it has signed onto the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As a party to this convention, the rights organizations wrote, "Lebanon is obligated not to return or extradite anyone in danger of being tortured."

It is well known that in Assad's Syria, so-called defectors are regularly tortured. A new UN survey also found that only 1% of all Syrian refugees in the entire region, including in Turkey, could imagine returning to Syria anytime in the next twelve months.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation's Fleischer doesn't expect the Lebanese government to be able to carry out the deportations of thousands of Syrians anyway. The Lebanese state isn't even able to carry out its core tasks now.

Syrian leader Bashar Assad doesn't want to have so many of the Syrians who opposed him coming back, either. According to the ACHR, Syrian authorities have even paid smugglers to bring some deportees back into Lebanon.

"It's mostly loud bluster to distract from other problems," Fleischer noted.

But this bluster is having an impact. The panic and fear means many Syrians in Lebanon don't feel safe enough to leave the house, even to go to work. Mouad said he is still going to work, despite his recent experience. But he conceded that he no longer feels safe in Lebanon. "I just want to live in safety," he explained.

This story was originally published in German.

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