A banner photographed on April 11, 2013 states: “The municipality of Wadi Shahrour announces a curfew starting from Saturday February 9, 2013, for all the foreigners residing within the town, daily starting from 8:30 pm to 5: 30 am in the morning. At the same time, the municipality forbids the use of motorcycles that have not obtained a license from the municipality.”

(Beirut) — Lebanese municipalities have increasingly imposed curfews on Syrian refugees. The curfews restrict refugees’ movements and contribute to a climate of discriminatory and retaliatory practices against them. Human Rights Watch has identified at least 45 municipalities across the country that have imposed such curfews.

Some of the curfews were among numerous retaliatory measures directed at Syrians following the August 2014 fighting in Arsal, Lebanon between the Lebanese army and extremist groups operating out of Syria and the execution of at least three Lebanese soldiers abducted by the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. Such curfews violate international human rights law and appear to be illegal under Lebanese law. Municipal police enforce many of the curfews but Human Rights Watch also received information about the creation of local vigilante groups to enforce curfews, raising concerns about abuses.

“The authorities have presented no evidence that curfews for Syrian refugees are necessary for public order or security in Lebanon,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “These curfews are just contributing to an increasingly hostile environment for Syrian refugees in the country.”

The Lebanese government should instruct municipalities to stop imposing the curfews and to protect Syrians in Lebanon from retaliatory measures, Human Rights Watch said. The national government should not cede its responsibilities concerning the refugees to municipalities that are not well-equipped or responsible for meeting the challenges of the increasing number of refugees in the country.

Lebanon now hosts close to 1.2 million registered or registering Syrian refugees. Despite the growing numbers, the national government has not adopted a national policy for housing or otherwise managing the influx of refugees. Nor has it provided adequate guidance to municipalities on how to manage the influx of refugees in their communities or to oversee their policies to ensure compliance with Lebanon’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

While some municipalities have had curfews for well over a year, a number of others imposed similar curfews following the fighting in Arsal. The curfews are typically announced with a large banner erected in a main street, outlining the times during which Syrians, foreigners, or foreign workers are not allowed to be outside or gather in large groups. The banners, which address ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign workers’, are widely understood to refer to Syrians.

On August 18, Human Rights Watch visited two villages in the Akkar region of northern Lebanon that imposed curfews after the fighting in Arsal broke out. The director of the Ministry of Social Affairs health clinic in the Christian village of Rahbe, Akkar, told Human Rights Watch that on August 8 the local municipality imposed an 8 p.m. curfew. While the head of the Rahbe Municipality told Human Rights Watch that the curfew was targeted at motorbikes, which are popular with Syrians, and not at Syrians generally, Rahbe residents told Human Rights Watch that they understood that the curfew applied to Syrians more broadly.

In neighboring Tikrit, a predominately Sunni town, a Syrian resident and a local Lebanese resident both said that a curfew was imposed on about August 8. The deputy director of the Tikrit municipality denied that there was a blanket curfew and said it specifically targeted those on motorbikes.

A Syrian refugee who lives in Zalka, in the Metn district, said that in late August municipal police prevented him from getting medicine for his sick child from a pharmacy next to his house at 8:45 p.m.:

When I got down to the street, I was immediately stopped by the municipal police. They said, ‘You are Syrian, you can’t go out after 8pm. There is a curfew in place, no Syrians can go out after 8pm.’ I told them, ‘Yes but I am just going to get medicine for my child.’ They said, ‘No, you need to go home.’ I went home and didn’t buy the medicine for my child.

A humanitarian worker who monitors refugee protection for an international organization operating in the Bekaa told Human Rights Watch that starting the first week of August the Hermel municipality imposed a curfew for Syrian refugees from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day. In the Bsharri district, in Lebanon’s northeast, the municipality imposed a curfew in August limiting the movement of Syrian refugees on motorcycles after 7 p.m., according to the aid worker.

There have been differing reports about how municipal curfews have been enforced, although they appear to be typically enforced by local municipal police. Human Rights Watch interviewed nine municipal officials about their curfews, six of whom said they were enforced by municipal police or guards. In some cases however, as in Aley, it has been reported by the media that local vigilante groups, some of them armed, have been assembled to patrol the streets at night looking for Syrians out after the curfew. Residents of the Akkar district of Tikrit said a vigilante group had been assembled with the support of the municipal government to enforce the curfew and manage security in the town.

Human Rights Watch spoke to a Syrian who accompanied his friend to the hospital after he was reportedly attacked by several Lebanese men in the town of Rawda, at approximately 10 p.m. on September 23. He told Human Rights Watch his friend was stopped by a group of men who told him he could not go out at night because he was a Syrian. He told Human Rights Watch that when his friend told them he was just going to the store to purchase a few things they stabbed him three times. Human Rights Watch could not speak with the victim directly because of the extent of his injuries.

The Lebanese government should not ignore the development of militias that, even with the tacit support of local authorities, are outside any formal structure that would ensure they are acting in accordance with domestic and human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. Such vigilante groups should be disbanded and any support from local municipalities or other authorities to such groups should cease.

“The last thing Lebanon needs is vigilante groups with arms walking the streets,” Houry said. “Real security comes at the hand of national institutions that ensure that the law is applied fairly to everyone, locals and Syrians alike.”

Two Syrians who act as intermediaries between refugees and humanitarian organizations in Zgharta and Meryata described how curfews are enforced. They said that the police issue warnings to people who violate the curfews and that exceptions were made for people with advance permission who need to be out at night for work or emergencies. Five municipal officials also told Human Rights Watch that the municipality issues permits to workers who need to be out during the curfew for work.

Some officials said curfew violators would be given a warning, or in other cases would be taken to the municipality for questioning. Rawad Shemsedeen, a council member for the municipality of Benih in Aley, that those who break the curfew there are given an initial warning, and are punished if they repeatedly break it; although he did not indicate what this punishment would entail. A report by NBC news said that Syrians who break curfew in the municipality of Ramhallah, in the Baabda district, are given warnings for the first two violations, but are detained for a few hours on the third or fourth. 

While local officials often defend restrictions on the freedom of movement for Syrian refugees as necessary security measures, their explanations often rely on stereotypes and contribute to a discriminatory climate, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch asked seven officials from different municipalities to provide specific examples or data that would reflect that security incidents in the town went down after the curfews were imposed. None of them did, even though four of them insisted that security had improved after a curfew was imposed.

Four municipal officials Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the curfews were carried out without any coordination with or guidance from the national government. One wrongly claimed, “This [the curfew] has nothing to do with the government. It is within the power of the municipality to take security measures to protect its residents.”

The curfews are also not being carried out under any law, as required by Lebanon’s international human rights obligations, and their implementation by municipalities appears to contravene Lebanese domestic law.

In April 2013, Marwan Charbel, who was then the interior minister, was reported by al-Sharq al-Awsat as saying there was no legal basis for the curfews, and that local municipalities did not have the right to infringe on the authority of the state-wide security forces – whatever the conditions – including imposing local curfews. The Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based non-governmental non-profit organization, has also publicly denounced the curfews, calling them a form of collective punishment and a violation of human rights. The Norwegian Refugee Council also issued a fact sheet for lawyers about the curfews in July, finding that they had no basis in Lebanese law.

Anyone lawfully present in a country has the right to freedom of movement within that country. This principle is enshrined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Lebanon has ratified.While countries may under certain circumstances restrict movement, such limits must be enacted in law and must be necessary “to protect national security, public order, public health, or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.” Furthermore the restriction of movement must be proportionate, including in judging the areas it applies to, the time, the number of people affected, and the impact it has on their lives, in comparison with the aim achieved by the law. Lebanon has no such law, Human Rights Watch said. Restrictions on rights cannot be imposed on a discriminatory basis, including by nationality. This is a fundamental principle of human rights law that applies even during emergencies. The prohibition on discrimination means any difference in treatment on the grounds of nationality must be very strictly justified. It is extremely rare that singling out one nationality for detrimental treatment would be justifiable.

While donor states should continue to generously support Lebanese government efforts to meet the needs of the Syrian refugee and local populations, they should examine whether any municipalities receiving their assistance are imposing unlawful and discriminatory restrictions on Syrian refugees and, if so, consider ending that assistance, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Lebanese government needs to be sending municipalities and Lebanese citizens the message that vigilante justice is no justice,” Houry said. “Municipalities should cease imposing these curfews, which they have no authority to require, and end practices that feed into a climate of discrimination against and stereotyping of Syrians in Lebanon.”