(Beirut) – The Lebanese government forcibly returned about three dozen Palestinians to Syria on May 4, 2014, putting them at grave risk. On the same day, the government also arbitrarily denied entry to Palestinians crossing over the land border from Syria.
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.
“The Lebanese government is bearing an incomparable burden with the Syrian refugees crossing its borders, but blocking Palestinians from Syria is mishandling the situation,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Palestinians are among the most vulnerable people in the Syria conflict, and like Syrian nationals are at risk of both generalized violence and targeted attacks.”
Human Rights Watch spoke by phone on May 5 to two men who were part of a group of about three dozen people deported by Lebanese General Security on May 4. They and a third person had remained in the strip of territory between the Lebanese and Syrian border checkpoints at the Masnaa crossing for fear of what would happen to them if they reentered Syria. The rest of the group reentered Syria, where their fate is unknown.
The decision to deport the men followed their arrest at the Beirut airport on May 3 for allegedly attempting to leave the country using fraudulent visas. On May 3, Lebanon’s General Security issued a statement indicating that 49 Syrians and Palestinians from Syria had been stopped at the airport that day for using forged documents and that legal proceedings would be initiated against them.
Salam (names have been changed for their protection), a 26-year-old Palestinian who had been living in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, said he left Syria in December 2012. He told Human Rights Watch that Beirut airport officials accused him of having a fake Libyan visa in his passport and then transferred him to the Masnaa border crossing without explanation. He said the authorities had deported him even though he told General Security officials that he feared he would be detained if he was returned to Syria. He said that he was registered as a refugee with UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, both in Syria and after arriving in Lebanon. He said:
On May 3, I went to the Beirut airport to travel to Libya…General Security said the visa is fake…and detained me at the airport for 26 hours with 40 other Syrians. They transferred us to the Masnaa border without explaining anything…They told us that we will be deported. They did not give us an option to leave, to go to another country. I spoke with the head of General Security...I told him I can’t go back to Syria because I will be detained for skipping my mandatory army service... The [General Security] general said that he can’t do anything…Now I am staying here [in between the border check points] until a country agrees to take me in. I prefer to wait than to get arrested in Syria.
A 21-year-old Palestinian refugee from the Yarmouk camp, who was deported with his brother, told Human Rights Watch that he also was stopped at the Beirut airport while attempting to travel to Libya and accused of having a forged visa. He too was registered with UNRWA in Syria and in Lebanon, where he has been living for the past year-and-a-half. He said that they were arrested with approximately 45 others, the majority of them Palestinians. He said he was afraid to enter Syria because he too had fled his military service.
“They didn’t explain anything to us – why they were detaining us and where they were taking us,” he said. “They didn’t give us any other option other than returning to Syria. We had women and children with us and one was pregnant.”
Before the March 2011 uprising began, Syria was home to approximately 500,000 Palestinian refugees, some of whom were born and raised in the country. Palestinians from Syria, like Syrians there, have suffered greatly as a result of generalized violence and unlawful attacks by both government forces and non-state armed groups. Palestinian refugee camps, including in Aleppo, Daraa, and the Yarmouk camp in south Damascus, have come under attack and siege, resulting in numerous civilian fatalities and injuries.
The Yarmouk camp, home to the largest Palestinian community in the country before the start of the conflict, was besieged by government forces in December 2012, resulting in widespread malnutrition and in some cases death from starvation. While some humanitarian relief has entered Yarmouk since then, residents who remain there are denied access to life-saving medical assistance and adequate food supplies. Half of the Palestinians who lived in Syria when the conflict began have been displaced as a result of the conflict, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported. Government forces have also arbitrarily detained and tortured Palestinians.
Since the conflict began, approximately 60,000 Palestinians from Syria have registered in Lebanon with UNRWA.
On November 25, 2013, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Lebanese minister of interior to raise concerns about “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.” At that time, seven Palestinians from Syria who were stranded at the Masnaa crossing told Human Rights Watch that they were being denied entry. Some of the Palestinians stranded at the border said they had previously crossed into Lebanon without any problem, and they said that when they asked for an explanation, 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. The Ministry of Interior did not respond to the letter.
Human Rights Watch has also documented the Jordanian government’s policy of pushing back Palestinian refugees from Syria trying to enter Jordan from Syria at the border, without considering their claims for asylum in Jordan. In violation of its international legal obligations, Jordan banned entry to all Palestinians from Syria in October 2012, denying refuge to those trying to flee Syria and rendering the presence of those already in the kingdom illegal, thereby increasing their vulnerability to exploitation, arrest, and deportation. According to the March 2014 Syria Needs Analysis Project report, Jordanian authorities have forcibly returned over 100 Palestinians to Syria, including deportations of women, children, and injured individuals. In one case, a Palestinian was arrested in late 2012 at his home in Syria 20 days after he was forcibly returned from Jordan, and his body was later dumped on the street in front of his father’s house, showing bullet wounds and signs of torture, according to informed sources who asked not to be named.
“Concerned governments should generously assist neighboring countries, including Lebanon, so that they can meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria,” Stork said.