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(Beirut) – The Lebanese government began on August 6, 2013, to bar Palestinians from entering the country from Syria. Refusing to allow asylum seekers to enter the country violates Lebanon’s international obligations.

Two Palestinians told Human Rights Watch that they were among about 200 Palestinian asylum seekers barred from crossing the border, after Lebanese General Security on August 6 abruptly changed its entry policies for Palestinians living in Syria.

“How can Lebanon turn its back on desperate people who have lost their homes, relatives, and livelihoods and are running for their lives from a war zone,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon shouldn’t push them back to a place where their safety and very lives could be in danger.”

Before the March 2011 uprising began, Syria was home to nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees, some of whom were born and raised in the country.

The Palestinians stranded at Lebanon’s border include entire families, children, the elderly, and the sick. Some spent the night in the area between the two countries’ border posts, fearing for their safety if they returned to Syria, without shelter or bathroom facilities. Some have family members waiting for them in Lebanon. Others say they have no homes to return to in Syria as they have been destroyed during the war, or no money to return home, even if it were safe.

The Lebanese government should urgently rescind its decision to bar Palestinians from Syria from entering Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said. Lebanon is turning people back without adequately considering the dangers they face. Such a policy violates the international law principle of nonrefoulement, which forbids governments from returning refugees and asylum seekers to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

A Palestinian asylum seeker stuck at the border told Human Rights Watch that at approximately 6:45 p.m. on August 6, Lebanese border guards told him and other Palestinian asylum seekers waiting to enter that the guards had received a call from the Lebanese General Security office telling them not to allow any more Palestinians to enter the country. After this announcement, the only Palestinians allowed to enter Lebanon were Palestinians with Lebanese wives or mothers, or who had plane tickets to leave Beirut that day. General Security made no public announcement of the change in policy.

One asylum seeker who spoke to Human Rights Watch said he had lived in the Damascus countryside with his wife and seven children. They fled to Lebanon in January, after their home was destroyed during fighting between the government and opposition fighters.

He and his wife returned to Syria last week because his mother-in-law had died. They are trying to return to Lebanon, where their children are. He said:

Since yesterday, we have been sitting here under the hot sun. All we have is this wall to stand next to, to try and protect ourselves from the wind… We have no shelter, people are getting sick from the cold [at night]. There is no bathroom, and yesterday we had no food. The only water here is for purchase and we have no money… I am not going back to Syria…We are trying to not get killed.

A second Palestinian asylum seeker from the Sayda Zeinab neighborhood in Damascus told Human Rights Watch that after twice being internally displaced to flee fighting, he and his family of eight decided to leave Syria for Lebanon. He said he spent the remaining money he had to get to the border, and had no way to return to Syria:

I paid 10,000 [Syrian pounds – approximately US$96] to get to Masna` [border crossing] and now I have no money. I would have to borrow money to get my family back into Syria… Our papers are all in order, but they aren’t talking to us… All we are hearing is, “We don’t want Palestinians.”

Like the rest of the Syrian population, Palestinians have suffered from the violence. Palestinians interviewed by Human Rights Watch have reported fleeing their homes in Syria because of aerial bombardment or the destruction of their homes by shelling and bombing. Others were personally targeted by the Syrian government, and had been arrested and mistreated or tortured.

Until August 6, Lebanon had kept its borders open to Palestinian refugees from Syria. Since the March 2011 Syrian uprising began, more than 60,000 Palestinians from Syria have registered in Lebanon with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to Palestinians in the Middle East. 

Human Rights Watch has previously documented the Jordanian government’s policy of pushing back Palestinian asylum seekers trying to enter Jordan from Syria at the border, without considering their asylum cases.

Concerned governments should generously assist neighboring countries, including Lebanon, so that they can meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Human Rights Watch said.

“While the Lebanese government, like those of other neighboring countries, is struggling to meet the needs of the growing refugee population, closing the border is no answer,” Stork said.

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