BEIRUT, Lebanon — Over a week after Lebanon announced radical changes in its approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, questions about the policy remain: Is the government about to enact a policy, in compliance with international law, that helps it to identify and better assist the most needy among the displaced? Or has the ground been laid for legitimate refugees — people fleeing falling bombs, summary killings, torture, and more — to be forcibly returned to the very dangers they fled?
After months of growing pressure to curb the number of people entering Lebanon, the interior minister announced on May 31 — days after the area around the Syrian Embassy in Beirut was brought to a standstill when tens of thousands turned out to vote in Syria’s presidential election — that Syrians in Lebanon risked losing their refugee status if they crossed the border back to Syria. Refugee status is required for these individuals to claim basic food, shelter or medical aid from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
The government claims the new powers are in accordance with Article I, Section C of the UN’s 1951 Convention on Refugees, which states that an individual cannot be defined as a refugee if “he has voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality.”
But Latmah Fakih, Lebanon and Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the policy’s broad scope jeopardizes the principle of “non-refoulement,” which the UNHCR describes as “the cornerstone of asylum and of international refugee law.” The principle forbids governments from returning refugees and asylum seekers to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
“There are reasons that individuals may need to return,” she said. “For example, to get medical treatment, or to see sick relatives, or to organize travel documents. … They don’t fall within Section C.”
“We are concerned that the government would begin deportations of Syrians back to Syria. Forcibly returning someone to Syria if they have a fear of going back would be a violation of Lebanon’s obligations.”
Amnesty International’s refugee researcher, Charlotte Phillips, said Amnesty had not been able to confirm that the policy was in place, but expressed similar fears.
“If true, we would be very concerned. People from Syria are fleeing widespread violence, persecution, and human rights abuses. All those fleeting the conflict should be considered [for refugee status] and given access to rights,” she said.
Days after the original announcement, a further restriction emerged when Rashid Derbas, the social affairs minister, said Lebanon would only accept refugees coming from areas in Syria that are close to the border, saying, “We no longer accept that the Syrian crisis should be dealt with as a humanitarian issue.”
However, Fakih questioned the legality of the move.
“Turning people back from the border without adequately considering the dangers they face violates the international law principle of nonrefoulement," she said.
“Individuals fleeing from Homs or Daraa are not somehow more secure because they are not located near the Lebanese border. … If the Syrian refugee crisis is not a humanitarian issue, what is?”
Derbas did not specify exactly where the line of exclusion would be drawn, but recent UNHCR data from Hassekeh, Syria’s most distant northeasterly province, suggests more than 25,000 refugees currently registered in Lebanon would be — were the policy enforced retroactively — ineligible for refugee status.
Well over 1 million Syrians have registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, though the true number is thought to be far higher. Now constituting over a quarter of the country’s resident population, the refugees are widely blamed for putting unsustainable strains on services and exacerbating unemployment by accepting lower wages than the Lebanese.
At the Masnaa border crossing halfway between Beirut and Damascus, the line of cars entering from Syria stretched into the distance on Thursday morning, slowly trickling through the checkpoints. The only vehicles facing in the opposite direction were parked by the side of the road, their passengers resting, or perhaps waiting for word from the other side on when to cross.
Many of those entering Lebanon will make their way to the UNHCR registration center in nearby Zahle. Outside the complex, refugees who had just registered or were helping others to do so waited for friends and family. Few were aware of the threat to strip them of their status if they returned to their country, despite the UNHCR’s assurances that it had informed all registered refugees, demonstrating the scale of the challenge of coordinating information in such circumstances.
Asked whether the policy would affect her, one elderly woman who asked not to be identified said: “I want to go back because it’s my home, it’s my family. They won’t stop me going back.”
A man from Deraa, also speaking on condition of anonymity, was more sympathetic to the government’s position.
“I think it’s is a good decision. … What do you expect when there are one and a half million refugees here?”
Dana Sleiman, the spokeswoman for UNHCR in Lebanon, said the agency did not observe a risk of refoulement under the new rules, and commended the government for keeping such an open a border these past few years.
“It is like [if] the US has had to accommodate some 75 million refugees in the span of three years. We cannot think of a country that has done as much in proportion to its size or the size of its population in recent history.”
However, she conceded that the agency had expressed concerns over the new rules, and the assumption that returning briefly means an individual has no need of refugee status.
“Some refugees also face pressure or coercion to return and are not necessarily returning voluntarily,” she said. “Some have been told if they do not return to vote they will never be re-admitted to Syria when conditions are conducive to safe and voluntary return.”
Asked whether using international law to remove the refugee status of people from a specific country was discriminatory, Jad al-Akhaoui, advisor to the interior minister, said: “The Syrians who are leaving Lebanon can come back but they will not come back as refugees, they will come back as Syrian citizens.
“We have to do something just to keep the country running.”