(Beirut) – At least three Syrians deported by Lebanon’s General Security back to Syria have been detained by the authorities upon their return. General Security said it deported 2,731 Syrians between May 21 and August 28, 2019, following its May 13 decision to deport all Syrians who entered Lebanon irregularly after April 24, and directly handed them to the Syrian authorities. However, General Security has in at least three cases deported people who entered Lebanon before April 24. There is no evidence that any of the three could meaningfully challenge their deportation in a Lebanese court.
“Lebanon is putting Syrians at grave risk by returning them to the country they fled and handing them over to a government that is responsible for mass atrocities,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon is legally obligated to allow people to challenge their deportation and argue for protection. And it is forbidden by law to return anyone to face persecution or torture.”
Human Rights Watch has for years documented widespread patterns of arbitrary detention, torture, and deaths in Syrian government custody. Although active combat has ended in much of Syria, Human Rights Watch is still documenting arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and harassment in areas retaken by the government. People deported to Syria and their families are often afraid to speak publicly about their experiences.
General Security’s recent decision is based on the Higher Defense Council’s instruction to deport Syrians entering Lebanon through illegal border crossings. The Lebanese president heads the Higher Defense Council, which is responsible for implementing national defense strategy. These decisions appear to signal a policy shift in Lebanon, which has – with some exceptions – not forcibly returned refugees to Syria.
The deportation policy is one of several government measures that increased pressure on Syrian refugees to return, including forced demolition of refugee shelters and a crackdown on Syrians workingwithout authorization. These coercive measures come amid xenophobic rhetoric from leading politicians calling for the return of Syrian refugees and claiming that Syria is safe.
As a party to the Convention Against Torture, Lebanon is obligated not to return or extradite anyone in danger of being tortured. Lebanon is also bound by the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement not to return people to places where they risk persecution.
On July 31, Human Rights Watch requested information from the president’s office and General Security regarding the legal basis for the recent decisions to deport Syrians, the deportation process, and the measures to ensure that those who are deported to Syria are not subject to persecution or mistreatment. Human Rights Watch has not received a response.
Human Rights Watch spoke with one Syrian who was deported by General Security and two whose relatives were deported. All the names have been changed to protect their identities.
“Adel” told Human Rights Watch that his brother, “Rami,” was arrested at a checkpoint in late May 2019 and transferred to General Security’s facility in the northern city of Tripoli. Adel saw his brother in detention, and officers assured him that Rami would not be deported but sent to Beirut and released. However, Adel lost touch with his brother a few days later. For 20 days, Rami’s family did not know his whereabouts. In mid-June, Adel received a call from someone detained with Rami in Syria, who said Rami was held in Tartous and would be transferred to Damascus the next day. The family has not received news about Rami since.
Although the deportation directive should have only applied to Syrians who entered after April 24, Rami had been in Lebanon since June 2017 and was known to the authorities. In 2018, security agents arrested Rami for belonging to the Free Syrian Army. He was detained pretrial at Roumieh prison for around nine months until a court found him innocent and released him.
“Abdallah,” a reporter for the Syrian opposition who had been in Lebanon since May 2018, was also detained in Syria after General Security deported him and handed him to the Syrian authorities. Abdallah told Human Rights Watch that the Lebanese Army arrested him in Tripoli on June 4, 2019. He was transferred to General Security’s custody two days later, where an interrogator asked for his identification documents and his date of entry. Abdallah said he had entered Lebanon before April 24, that his neighbors could confirm this, and that he feared returning to Syria given his opposition activism. However, the interrogator insisted on deporting him.
Abdallah said General Security detained him for six days, then handed him to the Syrian border authorities. He was transferred to several security branches in Syria before a judge sent him to Tartous Central Prison. Abdallah said he paid a large sum of money to a lawyer who secured his release, but is still wanted by the security agencies and is therefore trying to leave Syria again.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with “Tarek,” whose brother “Ali” was deported in July. Ali was registered with the UN refugee agency and had been living in Lebanon for several years, though he returned to Syria for medical treatment and re-entered Lebanon in June. Tarek said Ali called and told him that State Security agents in the southern Lebanese town of Saida asked to see his residency documents. Ali did not have legal residency in Lebanon, but the agents said they would fix his paperwork and release him. Four days later, Ali was transferred from the State Security facility in Saida to Beirut.
Ali told the officials that he had been in Lebanon for a long time, but did not have evidence to prove that. Two days after arriving in Beirut, he was handed to the Syrian authorities at the Masnaa border crossing, Ali told Tarek. He was detained for 10 hours in Syria, then released and told to go to the Justice Palace in Daraa and the conscription authority within 15 days.
Lebanon has hosted an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011. Other countries should increase their assistance to Lebanon and resettle many more refugees living in Lebanon.
Lebanon should give anyone at risk of deportation to Syria the opportunity to see a lawyer, to meet with the UN refugee agency, and to present their argument against deportation in a competent court. Courts should prohibit any deportation that amounts to refoulement. The government should provide a regular, public accounting of deportations, including reasons for removal.
“Other countries should step up resettlement programs and aid to ensure that Lebanon is not bearing the burden of hosting such a huge refugee population alone,” said Fakih. “However, there is no excuse for Lebanese authorities to violate international obligations and put people in harm’s way.”