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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Some Syrians are returning home to arrests as others brave the sea

Refugees are being detained despite Lebanese assurances they are not wanted by Damascus

Newly displaced Syrian children arrive to a refugee camp in Atimah village, Idlib province, Syria September 11, 2018. Reuters
Newly displaced Syrian children arrive to a refugee camp in Atimah village, Idlib province, Syria September 11, 2018. Reuters

More than 50,000 Syrian refugees have gone back to their country from Lebanon this year, despite concerns over safety and the threat of arrest by the government.

Lebanon has pushed ahead with its controversial policy of facilitating returns over the past year, even though the United Nations warned that the neighbouring country is still not yet safe.

The head of Lebanon’s General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, told Reuters this week that his agency had organised the return of 25,000 Syrians in coordination with Damascus, and the same number again had gone home of their own accord.

According to General Security, all names are sent to Damascus for approval, and around 10 per cent of them are rejected. Those who are wanted by Syrian authorities are informed, so they can decide whether to return or not.

But The National has learned that some are being arrested upon their return despite assurances.

Mohammed Al Domani, a 33-year-old Syrian refugee who came to Lebanon in 2012, went back earlier this month on one of many return trips organised by General Security over the past year. His family said he was arrested on the Syria border by the intelligence services.

Another man, Ali Al Shini, 54, was arrested on September 9 after returning from Egypt, “having been reassured by [Syrian] reconciliation officials in Damascus” that he was not being sought by authorities, according to Qays Al-Shami, a Syrian media activist based in Turkey.

“Many of these people are viewed by the Syrian government as being pro-opposition, or as not loyal to the Syrian government, so our concern is that there might be retaliation upon their return to Syria,” said Leen Hashem, Syria campaigner for Amnesty International.

“Arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, property confiscation, harassment, social stigma, these are the dangers,” she added.

This pressure on Syrians to return to a country that is still in a state of war is forcing some in the opposite direction, towards a dangerous sea voyage and Europe. A boat carrying 39 mostly Syrian refugees sank over the weekend as it tried to make the 110-mile crossing from Lebanon to Cyprus.

Most were rescued, but a five-year-old boy, who officials told AFP was a Palestinian refugee, drowned. It is rare for refugees to take the sea route from Lebanon, and this incident was the first time such an attempt had been made in almost a year.

It is likely many more Syrians will attempt to make the journey if the pressure on them to return home increases. Nour, a Palestinian who fled Damascus to Lebanon to become a refugee for a second time, is among those planning to go to Europe rather than risk going back.

“We cannot go back to Syria. Our house was destroyed, and our daughters suffered a lot in the war psychologically. Most importantly, I worked in Syria as a nurse in the war and that means I cannot go back,” she said.

She is currently living in a Palestinian refugee camp with her two daughters, trying to join her husband who has already made the journey to Germany.

Her decision represents a growing desperation among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many of whom have lived in harsh conditions here years.

Lebanon is home to around 1.5 million Syrian refugees – a quarter of the country’s total population. The small Mediterranean nation has struggled to deal with the spillover from the war next door, and most political parties now support sending refugees back.

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Lebanon's foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, is keen for that to happen as soon as possible. Speaking to The National on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this week, he refused to call them refugees, instead describing them as "migrants" and "displaced".

"Lebanon does not accept Syrians to be refugees, not one of them,” he said.

Mr Bassil has repeatedly expressed a concern shared by others in Lebanon, that Syrian refugees will stay permanently in the country, altering the country’s sectarian balance dramatically.

"It's stipulated in our constitution, it’s related to the existence of the country that’s based on a certain equilibrium and balance, you cannot all of a sudden introduce 50 per cent of its population to the country."

US President Donald Trump also touched on the issue in his address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, saying the most “compassionate” way to deal with refugees is to “ease their eventual return to be part of the rebuilding process.”

Lebanon has repeatedly stressed that it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with such a large refugee population. Partly as a result of its limited means, the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which designates certain rights for refugees and responsibilities for host countries.

Throughout the seven years of Syria’s civil war, Lebanon has undertaken extreme measures to dissuade Syrians from staying in the country.

The government has refused to allow the UN to set up permanent camps, so hundreds of thousands of refugees build their own shelters or find accommodation where they can.

Those shelters are only allowed to be built using what the government defines as “temporary” materials, which are insufficient to keep out the winter weather. Many refugees have died from freezing temperatures in the colder months, mostly in the Bekaa Valley, which is covered with a blanket of snow every year.

It has also become increasingly difficult for Syrians to remain here legally, as the Lebanese government has introduced complicated and expensive legal procedures in order to retain refugee status. All of which has added up to a powerful push factor – making life in Lebanon so miserable for refugees that they would rather try their luck at home.

“We cannot say the state is putting pressure on them to leave,” said Sahar Mandour, Lebanon Researcher for Amnesty, “but they [have] kept them in a situation that is pretty vulnerable.”