8 min read  | Diaspora & Refugees, Politics

Assad pursues Syrians in Lebanon to legitimize his fourth re-election


May 24, 2021

AMMAN — “If he brought back the martyrs and those he killed in cold blood came back to life, I’d vote for him,” Umm Muhammad, a Syrian refugee living in northern Lebanon, responded angrily to what she considered a “bribe” offered to her by a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in exchange for voting in the Syrian presidential election. The elections were held on Thursday for Syrians outside Syria, while those in Syria  will be able to cast votes on May 26. 

In late April, the SSNP member offered Umm Muhammad help obtaining some identification documents, in addition to $200 and a food basket, “on the condition that I give him my identity card in order to vote for Bashar al-Assad,” she told Syria Direct. When she refused to participate in what she described as “the farce elections,” he retracted his offer and even threatened her. 

Threats and extortion

Ever since Umm Muhammad fled the countryside of Homs province with her husband and five children in 2014, the 40-year-old refugee has sought to correct her legal status for residency in Lebanon multiple times. But that requires, she explained, “having a Lebanese sponsor, for an amount of money that is more than I can pay, because sewing hardly sustains me from day to day.”

Of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 96% live in the country illegally because “for Syrian refugees, the system to obtain residency is unbelievably difficult,” Nadia Hardman, a researcher in the Refugee and Migrant Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, told Syria Direct previously. 

Since January 2015, Lebanese authorities have required Syrians not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to find a Lebanese sponsor—whether a property owner or employer—to legally remain in the country in exchange for a $200 annual renewal fee. The aim is to limit the flow of refugees to Lebanon. 

According to a 2017 Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) report, “most Syrians have been unable to meet the conditions of residency” since 2015.

Furthermore, “the absence of Lebanese General Security oversight of the sponsors has facilitated the exploitation of refugees and the stipulation that sponsorship be granted in exchange for sums ranging from $500 to $2,000,” Abdulrahman al-Akkari, the former head of the General Authority to Follow the Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, told Syria Direct.

Umm Muhammad expressed concern for her family after they refused to vote for Assad. The area where she lives is controlled by the pro-regime SSNP, which even fights alongside pro-Assad forces in Syria. Pictures of Assad are spread in the streets. Even so, she is insistent that “if my son were to vote for Assad, I would disown him.”

Syrians in Lebanon, in general, suffer “racism and a lack of freedom to accept or refuse,” given that most live in areas controlled by “influential institutions and parties loyal to the Assad regime,” Hussein Abu Jaafar, a member of the General Authority to Follow the Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, said. But they do not dare to “make formal or informal complaints” about the pressures exerted on them “by threats and extortion,” he added.

However, the Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR) has received numerous complaints and reports from Syrian refugees in Lebanon who have been threatened, Muhammad Hassan, the Executive Director of ACHR, told Syria Direct. The threats include “withdrawing identification documents, deportation, eviction and expulsion from work,” Hassan said. And some have reached the extent of threats to “burn their camps and detain their relatives inside Syria.”

A pretext for deportation

Syrian refugees living in Beirut, Bekaa, Baalbek, Akkar, Miniyeh and southern Lebanon are most exposed to threats, according to Hassan, as those areas are controlled by anti-refugee and pro-Assad political entities.

“These political forces will use the participation of refugees in the elections as a new pretext to [forcibly] return them to Syria, Mustafa al-Qasem, a defected judge from the Assad regime, told Syria Direct, by portraying the refugees as “having no problem with the Assad regime.”

The Lebanese authorities are not allowed, at least in theory, to deport any Syrian resident of their territory, whether or not they have refugee status. That “violates the Lebanese constitution, which prohibits the deportation of any person at risk,” Hassan said. It also violates Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which states that “no State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” 

Because Umm Muhammad’s stance on the presidential elections is that of many, if not most Syrians in Lebanon, one pro-Assad Lebanese individual resorted to a deceptive ruse to bring them together and seize their identification documents, so they would be forced to vote before being able to get these documents back. He invited them to receive food aid he said was sent from the UN. But when he started speaking before them using the term “comrades,” raised the official Syrian flag and photographed the audience, Abu Ahmad—one of the Syrian refugees in attendance—realized he fell “into the trap” and decided to leave. 

While Abu Ahmad was leaving, one attendee asked the organizer of the meeting, “Why did you invite us?” and stressed that he “came to take the aid, and didn’t want to vote.” The organizer replied: “Shut up or get out.” At that moment, “we all left, nobody stayed,” Abu Ahmad told Syria Direct.

Abu Ahmad accused “influential loyalists with dual Syrian-Lebanese nationalities” of exploiting the poor living conditions of Syrian families in Lebanon, 90% of whom live in extreme poverty, according to the UN. He accused those influential figures of “blackmailing refugees to get food and financial aid and using their gatherings to show manufactured popularity for Assad.”

In a statement issued on May 4, the Syrian Human Rights Committee condemned what it called “practices of threatening and exploiting the precarious situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon” by “groups loyal to the regime to push them to participate in the farce of illegitimate elections and demonstrate popularity before the international community.”

Similarly, the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient Today has reported an effort to “push the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country who are eligible to vote to the ballot box.” In an April report, the newspaper noted that “Syrian organizations aligned with the government of Bashar al-Assad and pro-Assad Lebanese political parties and individuals” provided incentives to Syrians to get them to register their names on the electoral lists and vote, with the matter extending to threats.

In a statement on April 21, the pro-Assad Syrian Workers’ Union in Lebanon called on refugees to participate in what it called a “democratic wedding” and “an important milestone in the modern history of a Syria victorious over terrorism, siege and sanctions.”

Further, Muhammad Matar, a Lebanese businessman close to the Baath Party, organized a meeting in the northern Lebanon town of Miniyeh to rally voters in exchange for material assistance. That was followed by a pro-Assad festival on May 17 organized by the head of the National Center, Kamal al-Khair, in the same area.

ACHR criticized “a clear disregard by the Lebanese authorities” to stop pressures on Syrians living in their territories to force them to participate in the election, as well as disregard from “the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon to take any public step to reassure refugees in its role to protect them.”

Illegal voting

In early May, from his shop in the al-Beddawi camp, five kilometers north of Tripoli, Syrian refugee Abu Mahmoud witnessed two huge young men walking around and going exclusively into Syrian shops.  When they entered his, “they glared at me to frighten me,” he told Syria Direct, and “then hurriedly asked for my ID. I refused, claiming I lost it.”

But the two men insisted on taking any personal identification document, he added, asking for “a personal status record, a passport, or any personal identification.” When Abu Mahmoud replied that he does not have any of those, one of the men asked him in a highly accusatory tone, “Don’t you want to vote for Mr. President?”

The 60-year-old refugee could not control himself, feeling that “my soul is cheap if its price is refusing to vote for the one who murdered my brother and family, and displaced me from my homeland,” he recalled. “Even if you shoot me, I won’t vote,” he replied. 

Unlike Abu Mahmoud, his neighbor Ali gave his ID to the two men, as Assad “has already won,” he told Syria Direct. “It’s not worth being stabbed or shot to death for him. I have three kids. Who will support them if something happens to me?” He described the situation of Syrians in Lebanon as “on the verge of dying from both hunger and terror.”

Another refugee, Samer, said he hesitated before refusing the “tempting advantages” promised to him by a caller from an unknown number in exchange for handing over as many IDs or other identification documents of his relatives and neighbors. 

On top of $200, Samer told Syria Direct, the caller promised “to secure me a safe return to Syria and repair my destroyed properties there.” But he remembered that “dealing with the regime and its loyalists is a losing bet. Their promises are just far-fetched dreams.”

Samer speculated that the caller was one of 15 Syrians who “crossed the border [back into Syria] in vehicles belonging to the Military Security branch in Homs” in April, he said, “to meet the head of the branch and then returned to Lebanon the same day.” A separate source confirmed this account and added the names of the 15 people, but Syria Direct could not independently verify this. 

Muhammad al-Joujah, a Syrian lawyer living in Turkey, stressed that “most Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not entitled to participate in the elections” in the first place. Article 105 of the General Elections Law, “which the regime tailored to fit,” requires them to vote with a valid, regular passport bearing an exit stamp from any Syrian border crossing. This does not apply to most Syrians living in Lebanon since they “left Syria crossing the border irregularly and do not have valid passports,” al-Joujah told Syria Direct.

Consequently, the aim of forcing Syrian refugees in Lebanon to vote, according to al-Joujah, is “to show that there is wide acceptance of and participation in the elections,” in addition to “the regime’s desire to prove its narrative that displaced Syrians fled terrorism and armed groups,” rather than “escaping the crimes of [the regime] and its allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the ACHR criticized “a clear disregard by the Lebanese authorities” to stop pressures on Syrians living in their territories to force them to participate in the election, as well as disregard from “the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon to take any public step to reassure refugees in its role to protect them.”

ACHR stressed the need for the Lebanese government to “take immediate and urgent action to secure necessary protection for Syrians from the pressures, threats, and/or violations they are exposed to on its territories.”

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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