Refugee rights not up for debate

Lebanon cannot force returns without contravening international law

In the past month, Lebanon has seen a number of troubling developments regarding the presence of Syrian refugees, with leading politicians heightening calls for the return of refugees to Syria and making unfounded accusations of an international conspiracy to settle them in Lebanon.

As countries around the world have turned their backs on refugees, Lebanon is hosting an estimated 1.5 million Syrians, by far the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. At the Friends of Syria donor conference in Brussels in April, Lebanon made important commitments to refugee rights, including on residency status, education, legal protection, and nonrefoulement—the prohibition on returning people to places where they are in danger. These could have a real and positive impact on the lives of Syrians in Lebanon—if they are  carried out. But since then, things have taken a turn for the worse.

Following Brussels, Lebanon’s president, speaker of parliament, and foreign minister slammed a joint EU-UN statement that mentioned a “choice to stay,” saying that it suggested permanent settlement in Lebanon. But that phrase was part of a recommendation that only related to people displaced within Syria, not to refugees in Lebanon.

Just after Lebanon recommitted in Brussels to not forcibly returning refugees, politicians turned up the volume for their return. Although not calling outright for forced returns, President Michel Aoun said he would seek a refugee “solution” without the UN. He also called on the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to help facilitate refugee returns. The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, summoned the UN refugee agency’s country representative and accused the agency of scaremongering after UNHCR put out a neutral statement saying it was not involved in the return of 500 refugees to Syria in April.

Most recently the caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil gave UNHCR two weeks to develop a strategy for refugee returns and alleged that it is trying to discourage returns to Syria. He then froze residency permits for UNHCR staff in Lebanon—without the  government’s backing—accusing UNHCR of hindering the return of Syrian refugees by “spreading fear.”

Bassil claimed that by interviewing Syrians prior to their return, UNHCR was causing refugees to fear returning to Syria. But these interviews are part of UNHCR’s core mandate to protect the rights of refugees and ensure they are aware of the conditions in Syria so they can make an informed choice about whether to return at this time. UNHCR cannot “encourage” or facilitate returns of refugees before it has assessed that conditions in Syria are safe.

The attacks on UNHCR are a troubling escalation of pressure on refugees. Since the beginning of the crisis, Lebanon has generally respected the international prohibition on refoulement, and has—with some exceptions—not forcibly returned refugees to Syria. But while there is no evidence that recent returns of Syrians have been forced, Human Rights Watch found that returns from Arsal last year were not voluntary, but were the result of harsh living conditions, largely as a result of Lebanese policies that have restricted legal residency, work, and freedom of movement.

Refugees who want to return to Syria voluntarily are free to do so. But under international law, Lebanon cannot force or coerce refugees or asylum seekers who have a well-founded fear of persecution in Syria to return. Lebanese politicians have claimed that areas in Syria are “safe,” but this ignores the volatile nature of the Syrian conflict, in which more than 900,000 people have been displaced within Syria in the first four months of 2018 alone.

And aside from generalized conflict, many refugees fear arrest, torture, and forced conscription if they return. These fears are well founded. Human Rights Watch has for years documented widespread patterns of arbitrary detention, torture, and deaths in Syrian government custody. If Lebanese politicians are so eager for refugees to return, they should stop using UNHCR as a scapegoat and focus their efforts to addressing the real barriers to  return, including Syria’s unlawful detention practices and the government’s use of urban planning laws to seize private property without due process or compensation.

Lebanese politicians have justified these calls for return by claiming that Syrians are hurting Lebanon’s economy—arguments made largely without evidence. The presence of Syrians has certainly put a strain on services including waste management, electricity, and education, but these services have also been bolstered with international aid in response to the crisis. And while the war in Syria has certainly taken a toll on Lebanon’s economy, there is little concrete evidence that the presence of refugees has done the same. Meanwhile, refugees contribute to Lebanon’s economy, paying for rent, phone bills, and shopping in Lebanese stores—aside from the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Lebanon.

But despite aid to Lebanon, the international community’s striking failure to resettle meaningful numbers of refugees has contributed to the crisis here. Syrian refugee admissions to the US have dropped almost to zero. The European Union is still hiding behind the EU-Turkey deal  to keep refugees out of Europe.

There is an urgent need for a fact-based discussion around the issue of refugees in Lebanon. The government should keep the commitments it made in Brussels and end attacks on the international community and baseless speculation about an international plan to settle refugees in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the international community should step up both humanitarian aid and resettlement of refugees to demonstrate that Lebanon has not been abandoned to bear this burden on its own.

Bassam Khawaja is the Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @Bassam_Khawaja

One Comment;

  1. Guest said:

    I don’t know what this article is trying to say.

    “….but these services have also been bolstered with international aid in response to the crisis”.

    Are you seriously implying that “international aid” is going directly to the pockets of refugees or patching up the country in which they reside? Do you, or have you lived in this country or have had experience with how it really works behind the scenes? If not here’s a rundown.

    International aid Start here —> Middleman EU/ Arab/ Lebanese / Syrian Negotiator (cut percentages here on each section) —-> Reaches Lebanon – Cut percentage on Politician A B C D E … —-> Reaches NGO’s Cut overwhelming percentages here ( I’ve experienced first hand how much money these guys make, most sitting on their laptops in some hotel in Ashrafieh and these are just the “employees”) If refugees leave so would their business, this is a fact —-> Reaches “runners” or “on the Ground men” As they would refer to them, these are the actual information and deed workers for NGO’s, Usually they are locals as they know their way around. So a cut also goes through them.
    Finally a small portion of whatever is left in cash is left for basic income to certain chosen families, and the other aid in terms of food supplies will be delivered as required and everything in between to make it look good on paper. Rinse repeat recycle.

    As you can see this leaves Zero room for any “international aid” going to the clean up or maintenance or patch ups of a city or a country in response to a refugee crisis.

    And anyone saying that refugees are the sole responsibility of this government (as much as I dislike this government) is deluded. And what does it mean ” Refugees who want to return to Syria voluntarily are free to do so. But under international law…” If they decide to leave then they should be given that right and responsibility solely lies upon them, you don’t get to be the judge or jury or their white knight in shining armor, international or any other law should NOT interfere.

    Lastly the entire world, Arab nations as well as Al-Qaeda, rebels and all the international money that went into the creation of the Syrian war did not shift Syrian government’s direction or opinion on things, you mean to tell me that the Lebanese government should impose negotiations over some “displaced refugees” whom are the least of the Syrian government’s concerns? It’s going to be played either by their terms or the highway. Sad reality but its a factual one. And as much as I despise the current governments both Lebanese and Syrian, I would not turn a blind eye to the claim that it is also of NGO’s great interest to continue having refugees in the country because so much profit can be made off of them.

    So in a nutshell:

    1 – Some Lebanese Politicians would love for the refugees to stay because they can A) make a profit B)Shift population based on certain demographics for political influence.

    2 – NGO’s loves the status quo because of profit from international aid.

    3 – Syrian government would prefer refugees to stay to continue weakening and destabilization of a country it sees should belong under their claws. Which it already does.

    4 – International community would love to keep refugees from spilling over to their lands as well as some still would like to see the region under constant bombardment and shifting and weakening demographics..

    So ALL are equally guilty here. Most of all the blind and corrupt International communities who ignited this useless war that they now lost in the first place and crying a river about it today.

    I miss the days when journalism had a glimpse of neutrality and reasoning found among the commoners yet somehow absent in the eyes of the observer.

    Finally STOP pretending you or anyone else cares about human rights or Refugees, today everything is viewed by the lens of interests and businesses by a few very powerful corporations who run countries anything else is a Utopian dream of a ten year old, if anyone truly cared about people, refugees wouldn’t have happened in the first place neither from Syria nor from Libya nor from Iraq, you name it.. The more you speak truthfully and bluntly the more readers will respect you.

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