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As Lebanon cracks down on Syrians, it becomes ‘dangerous’ to defend them

As Lebanon deports and evicts Syrian refugees, pressure on journalists and advocates working to bring violations to light is also increasing, forcing some to leave the country or stop their work, just when it is needed most.

9 July 2024

BEIRUT — Stacks of books line every corner of the small home office in Beirut where Mutasim Khalaf spends his days writing. A poster of the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani adorns one wall, its neighbor an advertisement for the 1954 Damascus International Fair, held years before former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and later his son, Bashar, would rule the country. Vintage maps, postcards, and family photos fill the rest of the room: snippets of a life in Syria, Turkey, and now Lebanon. 

“This is everything I own,” 31-year-old Khalaf said, gesturing around the room. “This is my space within this sometimes terrifying city.”

Khalaf is one of the few Syrian and Lebanese journalists and advocates in the country shedding light on violations against Syrian refugees. As hostility against Syrians in Lebanon grows and the government steps up repression, their work is increasingly scrutinized, and their numbers are shrinking.

“We need to tell the truth, to give marginalized groups like Syrians a voice,” Khalaf said. “But it’s become dangerous to write the truth. They’re trying to make it harder and harder.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international nonprofit defending journalists, warned on June 14 that warming relations between Damascus and its neighbors is putting Syrian journalists living in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, at growing risk of being forcibly returned to Syria, “where they face imprisonment and, in some cases, death.” 

RSF, alongside the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, noted that these countries follow several measures to justify the deportation of Syrian refugees—often under the pretext of “voluntary return”—and have not taken any steps to protect or prevent the deportation of journalists who have arrest warrants against them in Syria. 

Mustasim Khalaf works at his home office in Beirut, Lebanon 2/7/2024 (Hanna Davis/Syria Direct) 

Mutasim Khalaf works at his home office in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, 2/7/2024 (Hanna Davis/Syria Direct)

Khalaf grew up in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus, surrounded by a vibrant community of artists and writers. In the years following the 2011 Syrian uprising, most of the camp—along with its once-thriving artistic circles—was destroyed, primarily by pro-regime forces over years of siege, bombardment and massacres. Khalaf fled Syria in 2016, but remembering his childhood in Yarmouk, he began to write. “The last thing we have is our words, our voices,” he said. 

He frequently covers topics related to the arbitrary arrest, detention and deportation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. There are not enough Syrian journalists—or journalists in general—focused on these issues, he said.

“Most Syrian journalists in Lebanon fear threats and the impact their work might have on their lives,” he added, explaining that many have abandoned journalism for safer fields, or have left the country altogether.

Syrian rights defender ‘on the run’ 

In May, Lebanese authorities arrested Hussein*, a Syrian employee of a human rights organization, for his work documenting violations against Syrians. He was not officially charged with a crime, but over the course of 24 hours was severely beaten and interrogated about his research, his colleague told Syria Direct

The colleague requested that his name, as well as that of the organization, remain anonymous to protect Hussein, who remains in hiding in Lebanon.

Hussein had been under surveillance since January, following the release of an investigative report documenting forced deportations, which he headed the research on from Lebanon. 

Soon, the situation “escalated much more than we expected—and much more than normal,” his colleague said. “All of the accusations were about working in the human rights [field] or reporting violations of human rights committed by the authorities,” he said. 

Hussein’s arrest and interrogation came amid an intensified state crackdown on Syrians, to which his colleague attributes the escalation. On May 8, Lebanon’s General Security—the agency in charge of enforcing immigration laws—announced a new set of measures restricting Syrians in the country and resumed its “voluntary return” campaign. 

“Lebanon is violating all Syrian refugees’ rights—collectively humiliating them, deporting as many as possible, hurting them and evicting them,” he said. “The general atmosphere is to put as much pressure on refugees as possible.”  

After Hussein was released, some news spread about his abuse during detention. In response, Lebanese authorities asked him to publicly deny the reports, his colleague said. Hussein refused to do so, and the security forces have been trying to track him down ever since. 

“He’s still on the run. He’s not able to go anywhere, he’s locked in and no one is able to help,” his colleague said.   

Hussein’s case is not the first time the rights organization’s staff has come under pressure from the Lebanese state, though it is the most violent. Two more of its Syrian employees have had to leave the country, largely due to their activism: one in 2021 and another just two months ago. 

“Every human rights defender who’s a refugee either quit their job and found something less risky, or got resettled in another country,” the colleague said. 

Lebanese lawyer under pressure

While Syrian activists—lacking legal protection in Lebanon—are more vulnerable to harassment and abuse by state authorities, Lebanese rights defenders are also facing pressure for supporting Syrians. 

Mohammad Sablouh, a 43-year-old Lebanese human rights lawyer who specializes in torture and arbitrary detention cases, has faced growing intimidation. Most of his clients are Syrian.

Sablouh began documenting violations against Syrians around 2008. However, he told Syria Direct that the intimidation against his work began notably in 2021, following the publication of a Amnesty International report he contributed to on the arbitrary detention and torture of Syrian refugees accused of terrorism-related charges.  

About a month after the report was published, Lebanon’s General Security Director at the time, Abbas Ibrahim, informed Sablouh that he “should not communicate with international NGOs,” equating it to communicating with the “Zionist entity” and committing “high treason,” according to the regional MENA Rights Group. Government officials also accused Sablouh of “seeking to stop the donations”’ for the security forces, whose wages have deteriorated amid the country’s economic crisis

The economic crisis has left Lebanon even more dependent on foreign aid, especially from European Union (EU) member states and the United States (US). “General Security and the army want to avoid being exposed for rights violations against Syrians and Lebanese,” Sablouh noted. 

When the government intensified its repression of Syrians this spring, the threats and intimidation increased, Sablouh said. In February, his car was broken into three times outside his home in Tripoli. Each time, he found it with its doors open, but nothing inside stolen. Sablouh believes state authorities were involved in the incidents, as a result of his efforts to shed light on the deportation of refugees to Syria. Since he installed surveillance cameras, there have been no further attacks on his property, he said. 

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, posted on X (formerly Twitter) on April 17: “Hearing disturbing news that Lebanese human rights lawyer Mohammad Sablouh is allegedly being subject to intimidation apparently in relation to his defense of Syrian refugee rights. This comes at a time of a generally deteriorating environment for [human rights defenders] in Lebanon.” 

Sablouh also noted that authorities have discouraged Lebanese and Syrian detainees alike from asking for his legal support. If they do, they are questioned regarding their relationship to him. Still, Sablouh said he is not deterred. He remains one of the most active human rights defenders for Syrians in Lebanon. 

“After 20 years of experience in the field, I can say that if we aren’t confrontational, we won’t be able to change the culture of violations,” he said. “It is a dominant culture that cannot be changed with diplomacy, but rather with documentation and confrontation.”

‘No journalists, no news’ 

Walaa Saleh is one of many Syrian journalists who have been forced to leave Lebanon for their safety. She left for Australia in December 2023, after life became unbearable due to growing state pressure on refugees and backlash to her coverage of abuses against her community. 

Saleh’s personal experience as a refugee encouraged and informed her reporting, she told Syria Direct. “I am among a community of refugees, we are facing similar things, we have similar fears,” she said. She fled Damascus for Lebanon in 2014.

Writing for local news outlets such as al-Joumhuyria, Daraj Media, and Megaphone News—among the few in Lebanon that regularly cover the abuse of Syrians—Saleh has reported on topics including the challenges disabled Syrians face and the impact of climate change on refugees

Being Syrian helps her build trust with those she interviews. “Syrian refugees have lost trust in everything, including journalists,” she said. “But I think being Syrian helped me. When I’m interviewing them I can understand their fears.” 

However, Saleh began to receive threats on social media in 2022 for her coverage of Lebanon’s voluntary return program. “They started to say bad things to me, personally, and to the newspaper as well,” she said. 

“Among Lebanese there is anger towards refugees, so when a newspaper writes something about Syrian refugees, people come to attack this newspaper and say they are supporting [a] foreign agenda. There is no acceptance from the Lebanese street,” she added. 

Ultimately the pressure led her—like many others—to leave the country. It is “a disaster,” she said. Some Syrian journalists have stopped working entirely after leaving, while others, like Saleh, continue despite the difficulty and drawbacks of reporting remotely. 

“If there are no journalists, there is no news. We don’t know what’s happening in Lebanon. The coverage is not enough at all,” she stated. 

‘I’ve never chosen when to leave’

An empty suitcase sits idle beside an overflowing bookshelf in Khalaf’s home office. “I’ve never chosen when to leave. It was danger that drove me away,” he said, peering down at the bag. He fears that soon he will be forced to leave Lebanon too. 

A suitcase sits idle beside Mustasim Khalaf’s bookshelf, 2/7/2024 (Hanna Davis/Syria Direct)

A suitcase sits idle beside Mutasim Khalaf’s bookshelf, 2/7/2024 (Hanna Davis/Syria Direct)

Tactics he once relied on to conceal his identity as a Syrian, and a journalist, are becoming more challenging, he said. He used to pretend to be Jordanian if stopped by authorities, or lie about what he did for work, but now Syrians are under a microscope.

Khalaf turned to look at one of his favorite posters, a silhouette of the renowned 10th-century Arabic poet al-Mutanabbi. Al-Mutanabbi was educated in Damascus and was always on the move, traveling between Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. Khalaf feels a kinship.

Leaving would mean taking down the poster of al-Mutanabbi, and everything else that makes this place a home—destroying another refuge. It would also mean one less voice in Lebanon speaking out for his community. 

“This country wants to mute our voices in silence,” he said. 

Mustasim Khalaf mimics 10th-century Arabic poet al-Mutanabbi’s signature pose, 2/7/2024 (Hanna Davis/Syria Direct) 

Mutasim Khalaf mimics 10th-century Arabic poet al-Mutanabbi’s signature pose, 2/7/2024 (Hanna Davis/Syria Direct)

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