ATHENS – Since April, Lebanese authorities have launched an unprecedented deportation campaign against Syrian refugees, arbitrarily arresting more than 1,100 people and deporting more than 600, a high-level humanitarian source told Syria Direct.
At least four deportees have been detained upon their return to Syria, Amnesty International’s Lebanon Researcher Sahar Mandour said. “We documented at least four [individuals] that have been detained because they were defectors, and people who escaped the military service are given 10 days to rejoin the army,” she told Syria Direct.
Mohammad Hassan, Executive Director of Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), said his organization documented “two cases of deportees who were detained by the 4th Division of the Syrian army” as of April 29.
The ongoing wave of raids and deportations across Lebanon—from Zahle, to Akkar, to Beirut—marks a turning point in years of efforts by Lebanon’s ruling class to return Syrian refugees to their country of origin.
“In April, UNHCR has been made aware of at least 73 confirmed [raids] across the country,” the UN Refugee Agency’s Lebanon spokesperson Paula Barrachina said, “including refugees who are known and registered with UNHCR.”
With more than 600 Syrians deported from Lebanon in April alone, the latest campaign is an unprecedented spike in forced returns. In all of 2022, 154 Syrians were deported, and 59 were deported in 2021, according to data collected by ACHR.
Beyond the increase in scale, the deportation methods are unprecedented. “It is the swift aspect of the deportations,” Mandour explained. “There were very fast deportations, after the raids people would find themselves on the borders without being informed they were being deported.”
It is also unusual that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are carrying out the deportations, rather than the General Security Office (GSO). “Usually even if the army arrests someone, it was GSO that takes the decision to deport,” Mandour said.
The swift door-to-border deportations have deprived people of their right under Lebanese law to challenge an order of deportation. “These raids were carried out in an unlawful way under Lebanese law,” Mohammed Sablouh, a human rights lawyer and the head of the Prisoners’ Rights Center at the Tripoli Bar Association, explained.
Sablouh called for an investigation to be opened into any violations committed by the army during the recent deportation raids. “The army is raiding camps and houses and is not respecting the sanctity of their homes. They are taking people who were sleeping,” he said.
“We’re seeing men, women, people from all ages, families separated, children deported, and their families are here, or vice versa. A child comes back from school to find an empty house because his parents were deported,” Mandour said.
Until now, deportations in Lebanon required a court order or a decision from the General Security Directorate, which falls under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. One of the main tools used to deport Syrians in recent years was through an administrative procedure based on a May 2019 decision by Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council stating that any Syrian who entered irregularly Lebanon after April 2019 could be repatriated without a court order.
As of September 2021, 6,345 Syrians had been forcibly returned under this procedure. Most of the deportations recorded in 2021 and 2022 were of Syrians who tried to travel to Cyprus from Lebanon by sea, but were caught and returned. As a result, authorities considered their date of entry to be after 2019.
Mandour called the 2019 decision arbitrary, emphasizing that “paper and residency status is not enough reason to deport people to a place where their lives are at risk.”
But the army’s April crackdown goes a step further. While before only those who entered after April 2019 could be summarily deported, now “not even this criteria of 2019 is respected,” Mandour said. “There are people who entered Lebanon at quite different years starting [in] 2012” who are being deported, she added.
As a result, any Syrian without an up-to-date residency permit is now at risk of deportation, a criteria that applies to 83 percent of the estimated 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, according to the latest UN data.
‘Even inside my house I’m scared’
Abu Rayyan*, a Syrian refugee, has confined himself at his home in Lebanon after being informed he was at risk of being deported. In late April, he received a call from a Lebanese security branch asking him to report to their center for “routine questioning.” After consulting with a lawyer, Abu Rayyan was told there was a complaint against him for attacking a member of the security apparatus in Lebanon—an accusation he denies—and that there was a deportation order against him.
“My psychological state is below zero,” he said.
Abu Rayyan does not have a residency permit, but is registered as a refugee with the UNHCR and receives monthly cash assistance. “Since the campaign to deport Syrians, I have called the UNHCR 250 times and they didn’t reply to me,” he said.
Abu Rayyan describes himself as a human rights activist, and for years has been vocal in street demonstrations and on social media regarding refugee rights. He fears his activism will make him a target of Syrian authorities if he is deported. But his main concern is who will take care of his brother, also in Lebanon, who was left paralyzed and with epileptic episodes after a brutal ordeal of detention in Syrian prisons.
Like Abu Rayyan, Abu Saeed* is staying inside his residence in the suburbs of one of Lebanon’s cities. “If I leave, I can be detained in any checkpoint at any moment,” he said. “Even inside my house, I’m scared they will come and raid it,” he added.
If he were to be deported, Abu Saeed faces a high risk of detention. Before fleeing to Lebanon, he survived nine months in several detention centers in Syria and was only able to get out after his family paid a bribe. His father was less lucky. He was also detained, and his family later found him among the Caesar photos, thousands of images leaked by a defected military police photographer showing the bodies of detainees.
As a member of the Caesar Families Association, Abu Saeed has long been an outspoken advocate for the rights of refugees and has participated in many sit-ins in front of the UNHCR offices in Beirut. But amid the recent crackdown, he barely ventures outside his home since he does not have a residency permit.
Both Abu Saeed and Abu Rayyan have reason to worry. On top of the four confirmed detentions of Syrians deported from Lebanon since April, in 2021 alone Amnesty International documented the “abuse, detention, torture and enforced disappearance of 66 refugees including 13 children, many of them coming from Lebanon,” who returned to Syria, Mandour said.
The same year, Human Rights Watch documented cases of returnees being tortured, kidnapped or killed. Since 2014, 3,083 returnees have been arrested, 864 of whom have been forcibly disappeared, according to the Syrian Network of Human Rights (SNHR).
As recently as this past October, the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) reiterated that Syria “is still not a safe place to return”. The latest wave of deportation in Lebanon breaches the principle of non-refoulement, that is, a state’s obligation under international law not to return anyone to a country where they would face a threat of torture or persecution, as well as the Convention Against Torture (CAT), to which Lebanon is a signatory.
“There are no safe conditions for a safe and dignified return of Syrian refugees,” ACHR head Hassan said. “These forced deportations by Lebanese authorities are a clear violation of human rights.”
In recent years, especially since the 2019 economic crash, anti-refugee rhetoric has spread in Lebanon, with many political parties openly demanding the return of the country’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees. A series of recent regional steps towards normalization with Bashar al-Assad have amplified calls for Syrians to return, surrounded by misinformation about their situation in Lebanon.
“We’ve seen fake news about how refugees get paid in dollars from UNHCR, as if refugees are living in paradise inside this big hell that is the Lebanese economy, which is not true,” Mandour said. Around 90 percent of Syrians in Lebanon live below the poverty line, and the UNHCR has been cutting monthly cash assistance—paid in Lebanese pounds—due to budget restrictions.
Lebanon, a country with the highest rate of refugees per capita in the world, has seen three quarters of its population plunge into poverty since 2019. The World Bank has described the country’s economic crisis as “deliberate depression orchestrated by the country’s elite.”
Sablouh is not surprised by the scapegoating of refugees by this same elite. “With these racist behaviors by the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army, they are trying to show that the cause of the Lebanese crisis is tied to the presence of Syrian refugees,” he said.
Lebanon alone hosts more Syrian refugees than the entire European Union. Mandour called on the international community to “make faster, wider and more courageous resettlement decisions.”
The UNHCR, in its role protecting Syrian refugees, “has to step up to its responsibility and act to stop these forced deportations from Lebanon,” Hassan said. Mandour echoed his sentiment, while acknowledging that the agency does not have a memorandum of understanding with the Lebanese army—as it does with General Security— which complicates their role in the latest wave of deportations. “The UNHCR does not have the mandate to communicate with the army about refugees or to visit their detention centers, so this makes it quite alarming and quite new,” she said.
“UNHCR is actively following up on this and discussing with relevant stakeholders,” UNHCR Lebanon spokesperson Barrachina said, adding that the agency “continues to strongly advocate for the respect of principles of international law and ensure that refugees in Lebanon are protected from refoulement.”
Last October, Lebanese authorities reinstated a voluntary return plan in coordination with Syrian authorities that dates back to 2018, although it was suspended during the years of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UN data, 9,711 Syrians returned from Lebanon voluntarily in 2022, adding to a total of 76,290 since 2016.
*Pseudonyms used for security reasons.