Syria Weekly: Deportation, detention and death haunts Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Syria Weekly: Deportation, detention and death haunts Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Lebanon is becoming an increasingly dangerous and insecure space for Syrian refugees.
6 min read
06 September, 2019
Syrians in Lebanon are under siege [Getty]
From Beirut to Brussels, Syrian refugees who have fled the regime's brutal bombardments remain under attack again, with more reports of forced deportations and anti-migrant rhetoric in neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey. 

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report this week revealed that at least three refugees had been detained by the Syrian regime after being deported from Lebanon. 
Among those who were forcibly returned was a reporter for the Syrian opposition who faced very real dangers from the regime if returned to Syria. He was arrested in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, on June 4 and sent to the General Security custody. He was then handed over to Syrian border guards, despite his work as an anti-regime activist putting his life at obvious risk.

After being transferred to several security branches in Syria he was jailed at Tartous prison but was finally released after paying a large sum of money.

He told HRW that he is still wanted by security agencies and so will likely have to make the dangerous and uncertain journey back to Lebanon again.


Others have been detained, tortured or have disappeared on their return to Syria, according to activists and media.

The Syria Network for Human Rights reported that 15 refugees who returned to Syria had died under torture in regime detention - 11 of them had been deported from Lebanon.

The recent clampdown in Lebanon follows changes to immigration rules that allows the General Security to deport all Syrians who entered the country "irregularly" after April 24. 

Since this law was rolled out on May 13, at least 2,731 Syrians have been deported, the human rights group said. Lebanese President Michel Aoun heads the Higher Defence Council which has overseen policies that have led to the deportation of refugees.

HRW said the deportations of Syrians signals a worrying "policy shift" from Beirut, given that Lebanon had generally abided to its responsibilities as a party of the Convention Against Torture, which prevented anyone who was at risk of being tortured in their home country from being deported.

Given the unpredictable nature of the Assad regime, any Syrian returning from abroad could fall under suspicion of the country's notorious security services.

The cases uncovered by HRW indicates that Lebanon might be taking steps towards abandoning its commitment to the Convention Against Torture. The consequences this could have for the 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon is worrying for activists, particularly given the growing xenophobic rhetoric and recent actions of the state, including the destruction of refugees' shelters and homes. 
Senior [Lebanese] politicians have been using dehumanising rhetoric about Syrians, attempting to whip up hatred between the Syrian and Lebanese population
- Ruairi Nolan, The Syria Campaign
The Syria Campaign said that almost 3,500 Syrians have been deported from Lebanon in the past three months, something of deep concern for refugees in Lebanon.

"The Lebanese government is determined to force or coerce many of the Syrians in the country to return. They have done this through forced deportations and also through steps to make life untenable for Syrians, such as targeting places where refugees work and demolishing houses," Ruairi Nolan, Programmes Director for The Syrian Campaign told The New Arab.

"Meanwhile senior politicians have been using dehumanising rhetoric about Syrians, attempting to whip up hatred between the Syrian and Lebanese population."

Under pressure

Despite the pressures on Syrian refugees to quit Lebanon, the dangers and hardships they face in Syria - despite the war now scaling down - means that few are returning.

"Despite the increasingly hostile environment they face, voluntary returns remain extremely low. There have been 11,000 voluntary Syrian refugee returns from Lebanon in 2019, out of a population of nearly 1 million (according to UNHCR data). Overall 200,000 Syrians have returned from neighbouring countries, less than 5 percent of the total," added Nolan.

Xenophobic attacks, deportations and racist rhetoric are also making Turkey - host of the largest number of Syrians since the war began in 2011 - an increasingly hostile environment for refugees.

Thousands of Syrians have been evicted from Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, following local elections that featured bellicose language against the refugees by some candidates with a number of assaults on Syrians also reported.

Some of those have been deported to Syria's Idlib, the opposition province that has been under sustained attack from Russian and regime bombers. Protests have been held on Idlib's border with Turkey urging Ankara to open their gates and provide civilians with refuge from the regime's horrific assault on Idlib and northern Hama.

"We are deeply concerned that Turkish authorities have been coercing Syrian refugees to sign voluntary return forms, then reporting them to Idlib and northern Aleppo governorate, a region that is under bombardment from the Syrian regime and Russia, in addition to being home to armed extremist groups," Nolan added.

"Forcing refugees to return to a war zone is a gross violation of their rights, and furthermore is illegal under international law."

Dangerous rhetoric

Turkey's Interior Minister Ismail Catakli boasted on Wednesday that 40,000 Syrians had been expelled from Istanbul and sent to other parts of the country.

"We will not allow another wave of immigration from Syria to pass beyond our borders. Relevant units have been prepared for this," Catakli said.

"Any potential wave of refugees from Idlib province in Syria will be received outside Turkey."

This was followed by an equally fiery speech from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when he threatened to open Turkey's borders to Europe due to the EU allegedly reneging on a deal with Ankara regarding refugees.

"You either give support, or if you won't, sorry, but we can only put up with so much," Erdogan said.

"Are we going to shoulder this burden alone... We may be forced to do this [open the gates] to get this [international support]."

Many have said Erdogan's use of Syrians as "pawns" in his war-of-words with Europe over funding for refugees is a deeply dangerous and divisive.

Portraying refugees as a potential threat or burden also contributes to growing anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe, they say, particularly when over 3 million Syrians remain trapped in Idlib with no protection from daily bombing.

"Refugees who have fled the war in Syria are in dire need of support from the international community. Using refugees as a 'threat' is dehumanising and abhorrent. Our support for refugees should be motivated by solidarity and compassion, not fear," The Syria Campaign's programmes director added.

"The European Union had hoped to outsource the refugee issue to Turkey. The countries of Europe can and should do more, including safe passage and asylum to more refugees from Europe."

No solution

With the EU continuing to buttress Fortress Europe - as has been seen with the handling of the Mediterranean so-called migrant crisis - then it is doubtful there will be a swift solution to the row with Turkey.

Yet the migrant crisis will continue as long as President Bashar al-Assad's regime and his allies remain in power in Syria.

With no safe or dignified space for Syrians to return to then playing politics with these refugees is both futile and dangerous.

"We must remember the drivers of the refugee crisis: the abhorrent human rights situation in Syria, forced conscription and the targeting of civilians, particularly by the Syrian regime and Russia," Nolan added. 

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin