Mr. Marwan Charbel
Minister of Interior
Ministry of the Interior
Al Hamra, Sinai
Beirut, Lebanon

Your Excellency,

Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights worldwide, appreciates that Lebanon has shown great generosity towards refugees from Syria and recognizes the enormous burden this mass influx of refugees has had on the country. At the same time, we would like to raise concerns and seek clarification on what appear to be recent changes in Lebanon’s entry policies for Syrian nationals and Palestinian residents of Syria at the land border with Syria, and particularly at the Masnaa crossing, which our researchers recently visited.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in the spring of 2011, Lebanon has been the most open of all Syria’s neighbors, receiving the largest number of asylum seekers at its borders and allowing refugees from Syria the greatest freedom of movement after crossing into the country. We are concerned, however, by an apparent change in practice, and perhaps in policy, that seems to have begun in early August 2013 whereby Palestinians generally are denied entry from Syria, and more Syrian nationals are being turned away than previously because of minor blemishes on their ID cards.

We are also concerned that border guards at the Masnaa crossing threaten individuals with one-year bars on entry for minor reasons, including asylum seekers who try to plead for humanitarian entry.

While we understand that there are serious allegations of bribe demands on the Syrian side of the border as the cost of leaving, our researchers heard accounts of Lebanese border guards accepting bribes for entry. The insistence of Lebanese border officials that the refugees show that they have received advance permission to exit Syria from the Immigration Palestine branch in Damascus before being allowed to enter Lebanon is also a significant obstacle to fleeing the conflict there. Lebanon should clarify whether the Lebanese government imposes this exit permit, which is only required to enter Lebanon and, if so, rescind it immediately.

We also are concerned about the lack of adequate reception facilities at the border, particularly as the winter months approach and as the length of time some remain stranded there seems to be increasing. A related concern is the potential for separation of families, in part because there is currently no facility for family groups.

In addition, we are concerned by a July 2013 announcement from General Security that Syrians originating from parts of Syria deemed to be “safe” areas would not be admitted. We do not think it reasonable under the present circumstances in Syria to expect asylum seekers to remain inside their country based on assessments by authorities outside the country that the areas they come from may be safe. We ask that your government clarify that no areas of Syria will be regarded as presumptively safe.

Finally, we are concerned by the lack of transparency generally for policies and procedures relating to new arrivals from Syria, and we see a need for posting clear rules and requirements at all crossing points, as well as notices that communicate the rights of new arrivals.

A fundamental concern which underlies all of the above is that Lebanese border guards do not appear to be taking sufficiently into account the high levels of indiscriminate violence and wide-spread human rights violations in Syria that are causing people from Syria to seek asylum. These dreadful conditions require Lebanon to make allowance for people whose IDs or travel documents might be slightly marred.

In that regard we would like to draw your attention to the statement by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on October 22, 2013, International Protection Considerations with regard to people fleeing the Syrian Arab Republic: “UNHCR characterizes the flight of civilians from Syria as a refugee movement. Syrians, and Palestine refugees who had their former habitual residence in Syria, require international protection until such time as the security and human rights situation in Syria improves and conditions for voluntary return in safety and dignity are met.”

UNHCR raised the concern about “increasingly strict admission criteria applied by host countries” and “urge[d] all countries to ensure that persons fleeing Syria, including Palestine refugees and other habitual residents of Syria in need of international refugee protection, have the right to seek asylum and are admitted into their territory. The entry and admission of persons having fled Syria needs to be dealt with in a protection-sensitive manner, regardless of whether they resort to seeking entry without appropriate documentation or in an otherwise irregular manner.”

While we understand that Lebanon is still admitting the vast majority of Syrian nationals arriving at the Lebanese border, it nevertheless appears that increasing numbers of asylum seekers are being denied entry and are stranded at the border. Bearing in mind UNHCR’s recommendation that governments treat the movement of people fleeing Syria as a refugee movement, and that Syrians and Palestinians from Syria should be admitted in a protection-sensitive manner, including entry without appropriate documentation, we present you with the following observations and recommendations based on our research findings. We intend to publish our findings, and we will reflect at that time any response we receive from you reflecting your position on the issues presented. In order to ensure that we can publish the research in the timely way we kindly request that you respond by December 9, 2013.

  1. There is an apparent change of policy whereby more Palestinians are being denied entry, and the criteria and procedure for appealing denial of entry is unclear.

Although it has not been officially announced as a policy change, seven Palestinian residents of Syria who were stranded at the Masnaa crossing told our researchers that Lebanese border authorities informed them that they were being denied entry because of a new policy not to admit Palestinians from Syria. Some of the Palestinians stranded at the border said that they had previously crossed into Lebanon without any problem, and they said that when they asked for an explanation, the General Security officials at the border were either not forthcoming or became hostile or threatened to respond with a one-year or one-month bar on entry. A Palestinian woman from Damascus who was stranded at the border with her daughter had traveled to Lebanon previously without problem, and said she was given no explanation for being denied entry. She expressed fear to Human Rights Watch that she might be harmed upon return to Syria because the General Security officer wrote “denied entry” on the exit permission document she had obtained from the Immigration Palestine branch in Damascus, a document she showed to Human Rights Watch. She said:

I did not know that General Security is not letting Palestinians in. I entered Lebanon 4 months ago without any problem. I don’t know why they would not let me in. The officer did not give me an explanation. He only said that, “you can’t go in because you are Palestinian and have to go back to Syria.’” He didn’t answer me when I asked if there is an official decision to deny entry to Palestinians. He even wrote over the paper from the Palestine branch. I hope this will not cause me problems in Syria when I go back in.

A Palestinian man from the Yarmouk camp who said that he frequently traveled to and from Syria and Lebanon with no problem, and had crossed as recently as October 2012, told Human Rights Watch that he was stopped the day before (October 9), despite having proper documents. He said:

All my papers are in order; I have my Palestinian/Syrian ID and my Palestinian/Syrian travel permit and the travel permit from the Syrian borders. The Lebanese officer here told me I can’t cross because I am Palestinian.

Another Palestinian man from the Yarmouk camp, whose house was destroyed and who was coming to Lebanon with his wife to visit his son awaiting surgery in a Lebanese hospital, was denied entry by a General Security officer. He said that he had crossed through six checkpoints in Syria before getting to the border, only to be denied entry to Lebanon:

I gave them the paper with our IDs but they still didn’t let us go in. They asked us why we want to enter Lebanon and I told them to see my son and because we no longer have a home in Syria. We have the address of the house my son is staying at and we gave it to them as well, but it was still a no. I did hear before coming that Palestinians are denied entry to Lebanon, but relatives also told me that if you are lucky they would let you in. I guess we are not lucky. The General Security officer told us that there is a new official decision to deny entry for Palestinians, but this is not true because my son checked before and he didn’t find anything that says this.

While some officials directly and specifically tell Palestinians at the border that they are being denied entry because of a new policy that bars Palestinians, there is still ambiguity about the policy. We are aware of no clear directive explaining what exceptions, if any, are made to allow Palestinians to cross into Lebanon or what the criteria for acceptance are. Some sources say that only Palestinians who can show proof of onward international travel, so that Lebanon is only functioning as a transit country, are permitted to enter. A Palestinian woman from the Khan al-Shaytan camp, who said she came to Lebanon because “I have no one left in Syria,” was denied entry. She said that the General Security officers at the border began threatening her when she pleaded with them to allow her to enter: “The officers told me that I can’t cross. I started crying and the officer started yelling at me and he even threatened to give a one-year entry ban.”

Human Rights Watch recommends first that the Ministry of Interior and General Directorate of General Security instruct border officials to presume that Palestinian residents of Syria who identify themselves at border posts with Syria have a humanitarian need to enter Lebanon unless there are reasons to doubt the person’s identity or to believe the person represents a security threat to Lebanon. Second, border officials should inform any Palestinian resident from Syria denied entry at the border verbally and in writing of the reason for the denial, allow them to appeal the rejection, and inform them of the appeal procedure. Third, the Ministry of Social Affairs should provide accommodation, food, water, and other basic humanitarian needs at the border post while such appeals are pending.

  1. Border officials deny entry to new arrivals from Syria for having minor blemishes, such as scratches, on their IDs, and do not accept family certificates as entry documents.

Syrian nationals stranded at the Masnaa crossing told Human Rights Watch that Lebanese border officials refused them entry because of minor blemishes on their ID cards, such as scratches, that did not affect the legibility of their cards. A Syrian businessman who arrived at the border with his wife and three children said:

When I arrived at the officer’s desk he gave me a white card and asked me to fill it out. I did and when I got back he said that my ID is scratched and he cannot accept it. I went to the general. I tried explaining to him that I am here only to spend the Eid with my family. He replied in a very disrespectful way. He said, “You don’t understand? Your ID is scratched; go get a new one or a passport.” I told him it is very hard to get a new ID and renewing my passport will take up to 5 months. He looked at me and told me that if I said one more word he would give me a one-year entry ban and would break my ID.

Our researchers examined this man’s ID. The ID was scratched but the man’s picture, his name, and ID number were clear. Four other Syrian nationals gave similar accounts of being turned away because of minor scratches on their IDs. A Syrian woman said, “My husband, 55 years old, was denied entry two months ago and was given a one-month entry ban to Lebanon because his ID card was scratched.”

Another Syrian man, who had earlier come to Lebanon and whom UNHCR had registered as a refugee, had crossed back to Syria for family reasons, but was returning again to Lebanon to be with his wife, still in Lebanon, who had recently given birth. His statement raises two concerns: first, he was turned away because of minor scratches on his ID; second, he offered as alternative documentation his family certificate, but the border authorities would not accept that as proper identification for entry purposes. He said:

When we arrived to the Masnaa border they let my relatives in, but they did not let me in because my ID was scratched. I didn’t know about the new regulations. I gave him [the General Security officer at passport control] a family ID card, but he didn’t accept it. The number on my ID card was clear and my picture was clear, but it had a small scratch. He told me to go back to Syria and get a passport or renew my ID.

We are also concerned by the Lebanese government’s announcements, as reported by the media on June 5 and July 23, 2013, that Lebanese authorities would limit the number of refugees arriving from “safe areas” in Syria.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Ministry of Interior and General Directorate of General Security instruct border officials to accept Syrian ID cards with minor irregularities that do not make the cards illegible as well as a broader range of identification documents, including family certificates, for the purpose of entry at border posts with Syria. In addition border officials should accept asylum seekers from all parts of Syria, recognizing that no parts of the country can be regarded as presumptively safe.

  1. Border officials threaten or impose one-year or one-month bars on entry for minor reasons, and sometimes for no clear or stated reason.

Many of the same people who were denied entry because of minor blemishes on their IDs were then slapped with one-year or one-month bars on entry when they tried to plead their cases with border officials. The Syrian man quoted directly above continued his account of his encounter at the border:

I told him my situation and that my wife just delivered in Lebanon so I need to go back to give my wife the family card to register the baby. The general lost his patience and gave me a one-year entry ban and told me to go back. I went back to Syria and did get a new ID. Today I came back, but they still wouldn’t let me in because of the entry ban. So now I sent my brother a copy of the new ID and he has to take to the General Security office in Beirut and apply for a “Talab Esterham” [mercy request]. General Security in Beirut told him that it needs 20 days before the application is approved. I don’t know what to do. Whether I go back to Syria or I stay at the border. The treatment is very bad at the border. I had to hear them talking to me in a disrespectful way only because I asked them if I can scan the copy of my ID.

Palestinians encounter the same threat of a one-year entry ban if they try to plead their cases. A Palestinian man who said he was fleeing for his safety was threatened with a one-year entry ban. He explained how the threat came about:

I want to stay with my family in Lebanon because the situation is very bad in Syria. It is no longer safe to stay there. The security officer looked at my ID and directly told me I can’t go in. He said Palestinians are no longer allowed to enter Lebanon. I went to the general’s office and explained to him my situation in Syria and that I haven’t seen my family in six months, but he did not care. I am traveling alone. When I followed him to the office to try to persuade him to let me cross he turned and told me, “You want a one-year entry ban.” I left, and now I am waiting.

In some cases, no apparent provocation is involved and Lebanese border authorities give no reason for the one-year entry ban. A Syrian man from the Golan Heights said that he was denied entry because his ID was scratched. The General Security officer at the border confiscated his card. The man said, “He kept it with him and told me he will call my name to take it back along with the one-year entry ban.”  

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Ministry of Interior and General Directorate of General Security stop one-year bars on entry for Syrian nationals and Palestinians from Syria and set the maximum mandatory bar on entry at one month. Lebanese authorities should instruct border officials not to impose or threaten to impose bars on entry for minor reasons, such as preventing people for pleading their cases for entry and put in writing a list of the serious offenses that could trigger a bar on entry. That list should be publicly accessible, including by posting signs at all border crossings and ports of entry. Finally, there should be a mechanism for appeal if an entry bar is imposed.

  1. Some border guards allow Palestinians or Syrians with scratched IDs to cross only after they have paid bribes

The Palestinian man who was seeking to enter Lebanon to visit his son in the hospital said that the people stranded at the border told him he would be able to enter by paying a bribe, but he could not afford to do so. He explained:

I also heard from other Palestinians that are denied entry and waiting here like us that if we pay money as a bribe they would let us pass, but we are out of money. Whatever money is left with us will have to be used to get back.

A Palestinian woman whose four children are living in the Ayn al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon spoke with Human Rights Watch after having slept overnight in the open at the Masnaa crossing with a female friend with whom she was traveling. She said, “We are hearing rumors that if we pay $100 we might be given approval to enter. I won’t pay the bribe though as I am going to give my savings to my children.” When Human Rights Watch encountered her later that day, she said that she was approved for entry, and her friend said that she had used wasta (“influence”) to gain entry, but declined to tell Human Rights Watch what that wasta involved.

The Syrian businessman who was denied entry because of a scratched ID and threatened with a one-year entry ban told Human Rights Watch, “Now I am waiting for a friend of mine who has a connection here and said that it can be fixed for $200.”

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Ministry of Interior and General Directorate of General Security instruct border officials not to demand or accept bribes for entry; prominently post at all border crossings signs saying that it is illegal to ask for or offer bribes for entry; provide a means for new arrivals to report on corrupt border officials; and suspend, prosecute, or otherwise discipline border officials found to ask for or to take bribes or to engage in other corrupt or abusive activities.

  1. Palestinians from Syria are required to pay a visa fee in order to be permitted to enter Lebanon and to show an exit permit from the Syrian authorities.

Those Palestinians from Syria who are allowed to enter Lebanon are required to pay a transit visa fee of 25,000 Lebanese pounds (about US$17) at the border per person, which is valid for one week. Syrian nationals are not required to pay a visa fee at all at the border. 

Human Rights Watch researchers in February 2013 interviewed Palestinians from Syria in Lebanon and found that the fee of 25,000 pounds per person upon arrival and 300,000 pounds per person (US $200) to renew after one year created a real hardship, particularly for large families. We understand that Palestinians from Syria are barred entry to certain of the Palestine refugee camps in Lebanon because they do not have proper entry documents or have not been able to renew visas. Those who cannot afford to renew their visas fall into illegal immigration status and fear that they could be subject to detention and deportation.

We are not aware of any Palestinians from Syria who have been deported for failure to renew their visas, but their lack of legal status causes anguish and intimidates them from seeking redress from exploitative and abusive situations in which they sometimes find themselves. Such exploitative situations can begin when they first arrive at the border and find they do not have sufficient money to pay the visa fees. Human Rights Watch interviewed members of a large Palestinian family from the Yarmouk camp 15 days after they had fled shelling but who became indebted to a taxi driver the moment they arrived in Lebanon:

I had little money. I had to get money from the taxi driver to pay for the 11-year-old, even though we are only supposed to pay for each person 12 years and older. We didn’t have the money [to cover the visa fees for the whole family]. The taxi driver paid the rest.

Another Palestinian father, who had to pay 25,000 pounds each for his family of five, said, “All of us had to pay 25,000 each. I had to sell my motorcycle.” The fee for entering came at the expense of a critical mode of transportation that would have helped to sustain him and his family.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a family of 18 who were living in the Shatila camp. Because they have fallen out of status, they live in fear:

We paid 25,000 pounds for each person at the border. Only the smallest children did not pay, but we had to pay for the older ones, ages 5 and 6. We were not able to pay for all 18 of us. We paid with gold. We did not renew the visa. Being here illegally, we are afraid to leave the camp. We have no contact with the police. We have only gone one street beyond this camp.

We understand that Palestinians from Syria must also obtain advance permission to exit Syria from the Immigration Palestine branch in Damascus and show these permits to Lebanese border officials before they are allowed to enter Lebanon.

The requirement that Palestinians obtain advance permission puts Palestinians in extreme danger by letting the Syrian authorities know their intent to flee the country before they do so. As we are sure you are aware, the definition of a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted in his country. To require a refugee to obtain the permission of his persecutor before allowing him to flee or to enter another country stands the principle of refugee protection on its head. Lebanon should clarify whether this exit permit, which is only required to enter Lebanon, is imposed by the Lebanese government, and if so rescind it immediately. If it is imposed by the Syrian government, Lebanon should not demand to see Palestinians’ exit permits as an entry requirement.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch interviewed a 30-year-old Palestinian man from Yarmouk who had fled when armed men came to his home looking for him and burned down his house when they couldn’t find him. He spent several months hiding in various places inside Syria before deciding to go to Lebanon, which at the time was the only bordering country open to Palestinians from Syria. But he needed to get an exit permit to enter Lebanon. He told Human Rights Watch, “I was too scared to go to get an exit permit, so my father got it for me.” He was fortunate to be able to escape, but should never have been required to have a permit to exit Syria or to show it to enter Lebanon. Other Palestinians fearing or experiencing persecution in Syria might not be so lucky. Lebanon should not add entry obstacles to people fleeing for their lives.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Ministry of Interior and General Directorate of General Security discontinue the visa fees for Palestinians from Syria in recognition that they are fleeing the same indiscriminate violence and widespread human rights violations as Syrian nationals, who are not required to pay a transit fee to enter Lebanon; suspend visa renewal fees for both Palestinians and Syrians so that they can maintain a protected status in Lebanon; and instruct border officials not to demand that Palestinians from Syria show their exit permits as a requirement for entering Lebanon.

  1. There is s lack of a reception facility for family groups.

At the time of the Human Rights Watch visit to the Masnaa crossing on October 10, 2013 there was no reception facility for family groups. General Security maintains a small building that serves for passport control with separate sections for men and women.

This, in effect, causes a separation of family groups traveling together and makes it more likely that husbands, fathers, and brothers might be wrongly turned back.

Separation of families not only increases their anxiety but also makes it more likely that documents will be separated from the persons they identify and that it will be more difficult for border authorities to verify family groups. Although UNHCR had recently erected three rub hall tents at Masnaa at the time of the Human Rights Watch visit, it was not clear at that time whether the Lebanese authorities intended to allow UNHCR to use the tents for reception and accommodation purposes generally or only in the case of emergency surges of new arrivals, and it appeared that reception conditions were still inadequate to accommodate people who might be stranded at the border, particularly after the onset of winter.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Ministry of Interior and the General Directorate of General Security instruct border officials not to split family groups, particularly by allowing families arriving together to remain together throughout the entry process; and that the Ministry of Social Affairs in cooperation with UNHCR (a) construct and maintain all-weather shelters for new arrivals during the admission processing and while appeals of denials of entry are pending; and (b) facilitate the unification of all separated families, including by reuniting new arrivals with family members in Lebanon, determining and seeking the best interests of unaccompanied children arriving at the border, and preventing the separation of family groups that arrive at the border together.

Conclusion

Human Rights Watch appreciates that Lebanon has kept its borders open to all people fleeing Syria, including Palestinians, long after other neighboring countries had closed theirs, and that it has not imposed restrictions on the movement of refugees inside the country, as have most of the other neighboring countries. Notwithstanding the concerns we express in this letter, we also note that that the Lebanese border authorities are still continuing to admit most Syrian asylum seekers that arrive at the border crossings, and that the concerns we raise here affect a relatively small number of total asylum seekers entering from Syria.

We recognize that Lebanon needs far more international support to maintain its hospitality for the refugees staying in your country and we will continue to advocate for that support. But taking measures that make entry more restrictive to any individuals or groups fleeing the conflict is not a legitimate response to the very real and significant challenges that you face from this humanitarian crisis.

Most fundamentally, we call on you not to backtrack on the openness Lebanon has shown to its neighbors from Syria in their time of need. We ask that you keep your border open to all asylum seekers and that you direct the officials working at the border with Syria to treat the flight of civilians from Syria as a refugee movement, to lift restrictive entry requirements, and not to discriminate against Palestinians or any other group.

We thank you for your consideration of our concerns and we would be happy to discuss this further with you.

Sincerely,

Bill Frelick                                                  
Director                                                          
Refugee Program  

Sarah Leah Whitson
Director
Middle East and North Africa