(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities, in violation of their international obligations, sent hundreds of Syrians traveling through the Beirut airport back to Syria without first assessing their risk of harm upon return there. Authorities should halt the forcible return of Syrians attempting to flee the deadly conflict in their country.
On January 8, 2016, Lebanese security forces returned at least 200 – and perhaps more than 400 – Syrians to Syria without first properly assessing whether they are at risk there of persecution, inhuman treatment, or other serious harm. Four hundred Syrians who were planning to fly to Turkey were unable to complete their onward journey because of new Turkish entry visa requirements for Syrians arriving by air or sea. Human Rights Watch learned through actors present at the airport on January 8 that some passengers expressed a fear of return to Syria but that Lebanese authorities returned them anyway.
“Sending someone back to Syria without assessing whether they’re at risk as they claim shows a total disregard for their rights and safety and violates international law,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “Lebanese authorities need to ensure they examine the claims of anyone who says they’re afraid of persecution at home before sending them back.”
Hundreds of Syrians arrived at Beirut International Airport on January 7 in hopes of traveling to Turkey but did not meet the new Turkish requirements. The next day, Lebanese General Security, the agency that regulates the entry and exit of foreigners, forced hundreds of passengers onto three flights back to Damascus.
Despite not ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, Lebanon is bound by customary international law not to forcibly return refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened. In the absence of domestic refugee law and asylum procedures, Lebanese authorities should provide unrestricted access to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, so that it can exercise its mandate for determining refugee status for any Syrian who expresses a fear of persecution if returned to Syria – even if the person is not registered with UNHCR at the time of detention. There is a functioning UNHCR office and programs in Lebanon.
Lebanon has ratified the UN Convention against Torture (CAT), which prohibits the forced return of anyone who would face a real risk of torture. The Convention against Torture requires that “competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the state concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.” The reports of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria make clear that such violations are rampant in Syria today.
Despite the fact that Lebanese authorities have repeatedly affirmed their commitment not to forcibly return persons to Syria, this has not always been the case in practice. Human Rights Watch previously documented the forcible return of four Syrian nationals to Syria on August 1, 2012, and of about three dozen Palestinians to Syria on May 4, 2014. Human Rights Watch also documented the forcible return of a Syrian national to Syria in 2014 and the suspected return of two others that year.
“Lebanon’s allies and supporters of refugees there should continue to press the government to abide by its international legal obligations,” Houry said.