Confusion reigns over Lebanon's plan to deport Syrian refugees

Confusion reigns over Lebanon's plan to deport Syrian refugees
The Lebanese government appeared to walk back an announcement that it would start deportations of Syrian refugees next week.
3 min read
13 October, 2022
Voluntary returns from Lebanon to Syria have occurred in small numbers, mainly due to the security concerns that face returnees in Syria. [Getty]

Confusion erupted after Lebanon's government walked back an announcement by President Michel Aoun that Syrian refugees would begin being sent back at the end of next week.

Lebanon has hosted between 1 to 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, after the beginning of Syria's civil war.

The statement by Aoun said "groups of displaced Syrians will start to be returned next week," without further clarification.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, which has a partial overview of the plan, quickly clarified that these would be only "voluntary returns", part of an existing policy where Syrians could register to be returned to Syria.

President Aoun's announcement seemingly referred to this voluntary return plan, initiated in 2018, and not a separate plan to deport Syrians against their will.

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Voluntary returns are organised by Lebanese General Security and are initiated by refugees who wish to return to Syria. Voluntary returns to Syria are relatively rare, despite ever-increasing poverty among Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

"I don't know anyone who would voluntarily sign a paper to return to Syria. They don't know where they're going. Most of the people outside Syria have been involved in opposition activities that they would be detained on the back of," Farah Abou el-Sel, a Lebanese human rights activist involved in the Syrian context, told The New Arab.

Human rights organisations have said that Syria is not safe, citing arrests, torture and murder of returnees. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), returnees face "grave human rights abuses."

Harassment and arbitrary persecution of civilians at the hands of authorities and militias in Syria are commonplace, especially for those refugees suspected of having affiliation with the country's opposition.

Despite the risks to their safety, a relatively small number of Syrian refugees have decided to leave the country for Syria.

According to Amnesty International, these returns are driven by "restrictive government policies, dire humanitarian conditions and rampant discrimination." The rights monitor concluded that returns to Syria cannot be truly considered voluntary, given that life in Lebanon is "unbearable" for many refugees.

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As the voluntary return program continues in the background, the Lebanese government has announced that it will begin to deport 15,000 Syrian refugees per month to Syria.

The government has reported progress on the plan but has yet to reveal the mechanism for its implementation and has been hazy on the details.

“I think this is more of a populist stance than a plan. It is a kind of unilateral plan from the Lebanese authority alone. We haven’t seen any practical implementation,” Wadih al-Asmar, the Secretary General of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told The New Arab.

The UN has said it will not participate in the deportation scheme, saying Syria is not safe for returns. Human rights organisations have also said that any plan that deports Syrian refugees would be unlawful and amount to refoulment.

"Lebanon is a party to the Convention Against Torture (CAT). As a party, Lebanon is obliged not to return anyone in danger of being tortured. It is also bound by the customary international law principle of non-refoulment," Abou el-Sel said.

The Lebanese government has said that it will go ahead with the plan to deport 15,000 Syrian refugees per month despite international opposition but has not announced when or how this might happen.

If the Syrian authorities were sincere in giving guarantees the protection of people in Syria, we would have more than 15,000 people going back per month, without the Lebanese government having to do anything,” Al-Asmar said.