BEIRUT — Last Saturday, Mahmoud Taufik Ibrahim, a 42-year-old originally from Aleppo, decided his family’s time in Lebanon had to come to an end. Together with his wife, son and daughter, the family left Beirut - where they had been living for two years - and headed to the Masnaa crossing at the Lebanese-Syrian border around 13h30.
The members of the family had the Lebanese residency permit “and all documents were in order,” Mahmoud told Syria Direct. “I went to passport control, the (Lebanese) officer told me to stay outside. I tried again and he pulled me out.”
Mahmoud said that his wife and son got stamps on their passports to go back to Syria, but he and his 17-year-old daughter did not. “He told me to get out and when I asked why he told me ‘stay out, you Syrian dog.’”
After Mahmoud and his daughter Zeinab found themselves stuck at the border, someone told them to try crossing illegally via a mountainous path. Zeinab died while trying to cross. Her body was retrieved by the Lebanese Civil Defense at 17h45 and sent to a hospital in Zahle. She was later buried in the Beqaa Valley.
Mahmoud’s family was trying to escape from the economic collapse that Lebanon is swiftly plunging into. “There is no work, the situation in Lebanon is bad, we cannot eat, we cannot drink, they forbid Syrians to work in Lebanon, we cannot travel freely,” he explained. He says they are not receiving aid from any organization and they can not afford to pay rent. “I just want to go back to Syria, go back to my country,” Mahmoud repeated as a mantra several times during the interview.
This Syrian family is one of dozens that in the last several days found themselves stuck in the buffer zone at the Masnaa border crossing. Most of them could not afford the $100 ‘fee’ to enter Syria, and once they left Lebanese territory could not go back.
At the time of publishing this story, it was unclear how many Syrians remain stranded at the border. A source at Lebanese General Security told Syria Direct they could not give a figure of the number of people stuck since “they are not stranded on the Lebanese side but on the Syrian side,” five kilometers away from the Lebanese border office. The Syrian Embassy in Beirut did not answer Syria Direct’s press request.
“It is hard to know exactly the numbers because the Syrian regime sometimes opens the door, sometimes the Lebanese open their crossing, or people manage to get in via smugglers, the number keeps goings up and down, the situation evolves day by day,” Haya Atassi, spokesperson of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD), a grassroots movement of displaced Syrians, told Syria Direct.
Paying $100 to enter your own country
As of August 1, Syrian citizens who want to enter Syria have to exchange $100 into Syrian pounds at the official rate ($1= 1,250 SYP), while on the black market the dollar has reached 2,200 SYP. This means they lose around $50 in that exchange, explained Maziad Al-Kraidi, a Syrian lawyer based in Beirut.
For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, getting a $100 bill is extremely challenging given that salaries in Lebanese pounds have lost almost 70% of their value due to the devaluation of the Lebanese currency. “The measure applies for those above 18 years old, so a family with parents and children may need $300; it is a very big sum,” said Al-Kraidi. “It is really absurd because these people are already escaping harsh economic conditions,” added Atassi. “The regime continues to issue rules which violate fundamental principles of human rights and legitimize looting of citizens’ funds to enrich its own coffers,” read a recent statement by the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Lawyer Al-Kraidi explained that this $100 ‘fee’ violates article 38 of the Syrian Constitution that states that a citizen cannot be prevented from entering their own country.
In an interview with Radio Ninar FM on September 3, the Director of Immigration and Passport Department, Naji Al-Numayr, suggested that the relatives of those stuck at the border could bring the $100.
Hardship in Lebanon squeezes Syrian refugees
The scene of Syrians stranded at the Masnaa border crossing is not new. In May, many fleeing economic hardship in Lebanon were stuck due to COVID-19 restrictions, as reported by Al Arabiya. Lebanon is in the midst of its worst economic crisis compounded by the economic effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastation of the Beirut port explosion. The UN has warned that over 50 percent of the population in Lebanon might be at risk of failing to access basic food needs by the end of 2020.
This is pushing Syrians to return to an uncertain future in Syria. “The situation in Syria is not safe for these people to return, but they are desperate enough to go back, we are worried about people being forced into an unsafe return to Syria,” said Atassi. SACD’s recent survey of 1,100 displaced Syrians found that 80% of them believed that the security situation in Syria had to change in order for them to go back and 84% of them cited the compulsory military conscription as an obstacle for their return. Atassi advocated for an increase in international aid for Syrians living in Lebanon and the reaching of “a comprehensive political solution that guarantees the rights of these displaced Syrians to return to Syria in a safe and voluntary return.”
Last Sunday, four boats with 123 Lebanese and Syrian citizens reached the island of Cyprus – 170 km from the Lebanese coast - as reported by Associated Press. The attempts of Syrians to trade their life in Lebanon for an unsafe return to Syria or an uncertain fate in Mediterranean waters, where last year 1,283 individuals lost their lives, reflect the hardship they endure in Lebanon.