Lebanon’s latest assault on Syrian refugees could not be more illegal under principles, standards, and rules of international humanitarian law.
Syrian refugee settlement, Bekaa valley, LEBANON — The sign placed by Lebanese General Security and Tourism officials on the western side of the Masnaa border crossing from Syria to Lebanon greets arrivals. It reads: “WELCOME TO BROTHERLY LEBANON.”
Well, at least it used to. That was until some obvious miscreant recently defaced the fine sign and wrote with a red magic marker: “These words are a sick joke and an obscenity!” And then the derelict apparently felt obliged to correct the sign. So for now, at least, Lebanon’s Welcome sign at the Masnaa border crossing corrupts a bit St. Matthew’s 11:25-30 account of Jesus Christ ministering to refugees and reads: “Abandon all hope ye from Syria and Palestine who travail are heavy laden and who seek refuge here.”
For the past year or longer, Lebanese officials have been unwittingly metastasizing Da’ish (ISIS) inside Lebanon from the border of occupied Palestine south up to Tartus Syria up north. This is one but not the only consequence of Lebanon’s intensification of its multifaceted and self-destructive assault on refugees from Syria who are fleeing here for their lives.
Many Lebanese officials from across the fragile sectarian spectrum are neglecting their legal, political, and moral obligations as they remain silent when one of their grandstanding cabinet colleagues proclaims to applause that “Refugees from Syria give off a ‘terrorism radiation’ and we don’t want them.” When a government’s own refugee minister labels Syrian refugees a “gangrenous and radioactive terror threat”, jihadists rejoice and shout “Allah Akbar!” and more black Da’ish flags flutter in Lebanon.
Three months ago, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas avoiding even the R-word (“refugee”), which he claims makes him gag, and announced that Lebanon “no longer officially receives any displaced Syrians” and he advised AFP that “the new visa requirement is intended to prevent Syrians from taking refuge in Lebanon.”
Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, sharply demurred, arguing that the visa measures were a result of Lebanon’s own failure to implement a refugee policy early in the Syrian conflict. Khatib said Lebanese concern about the refugee influx was “both real and exaggerated”, admitting that wages have gone down and rents have increased, but also that Lebanese employers have exploited Syrians willing to work for lower wages.
The BBC’s Middle East correspondent Paul Wood reported recently from Mashha in northern Lebanon that one resident told him, “I used to earn $1,000 a month. They (Lebanese employers) sacked me, and hired four Syrians instead.”
Unlike Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon has rejected the advice of the UN and has refused to create refugee camps, meaning refugees are dispersed throughout the country and setting the stage for a humanitarian nightmare. Lebanon’s complex sectarian make-up also plays a role given that most Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, like the Palestinian refugees before them, raising fears they could change the country’s delicate sectarian balance.
This fear is irrational. The reason is that neither Palestinians nor Syrian refugees want to stay in Lebanon with its fatal sectarianism, and it is estimated by UNWRA and the UNHCR that more than 95 percent of each group of refugees will depart Lebanon for Palestine and Syria just as soon as they can go home.
This week, Lebanon is doing jihadists another favor while adding to its own already deeply deplorable record of human rights abuses toward women, children, domestic workers, and Palestinian refugees, among others. Deprivations of elementary civil rights that are making Da’ish somehow more appealing in the eyes of many Sunni refugees seeking temporary sanctuary from a conflict that has killed more than a quarter million of their countrymen and displaced at least ten million, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
Until seven months ago, Syrians who entered Lebanon through an official border crossing and who were in possession of a passport or Syrian ID card could receive a free, six-month, renewable visa, one time, and a residency permit without charge. Subsequent renewals required payment of a US$200 fee. Many who could not return to Syria or afford the new fee were forced to stay on illegally.
On June 2, 2014, the Lebanese government changed the entry requirements for Syrians and blocked entry to all Syrian except those who could provide proof that they came from areas where there is fighting near the Lebanese border. Anyone who returned to Syria from Lebanon lost their refugee status and could not return.
Syrian refugees have been denied the right to seek asylum, and some have been forcibly returned to Syria by the Lebanese authorities without even a grace period. The new unannounced changes led to families being separated—again, in violation of international refugee law.
As of this week, and for the first time since its independence in 1943, Lebanon requires a visa for Syrians—something Syria has historically not required from any Arab country. This means that more than 90 percent of Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives and appearing at the Lebanon border will be forced back to Syria to face their fate. Lebanon is imposing unprecedented new restrictions on the entry of Syrians, requiring them to provide the length and intention of their stay with nearly impossible to satisfy Kafkaesque restrictions in an effort to block them from entering. UNHCR, the UN’s refugee body, fears the measures mean that Syrians fleeing violence in their own country are now blocked at the border.
As of this week, all Syrians must apply for one of six types of entry visas in Lebanon: business, medical, student, tourist, transit, and “short stay.” The key omission, and in fact the real reason for this new visa requirements, is that Lebanon has just eliminated the very concept of a refugee entry visa for Syrians. Tourist visas must be accompanied by a hotel reservation and proof that the traveler has $1,000. Ron Redmond, a senior representative the UNHCG advised the media yesterday that “The UN understands the reasons Lebanon cite for doing this, but at the same time our job is to ensure the refugees aren’t pushed back to someplace where they may be in grave danger.”
Omar Ghannoum, who works for an international aid organization that offers legal advice to Syrian refugees, told Germany’s broadcaster Deutsche Welle recently that Syrians in Lebanon cannot move around freely anymore. These refugees live in permanent fear of being caught by the police. They tend to stay at home, which means that they cannot go to work, and cannot pay their rent. It’s a vicious circle.”
Lebanon’s latest assault on Syrian refugees could not be more illegal under principles, standards, and rules of international humanitarian law. While Lebanon has consistently refused to join the 147 countries that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is nonetheless bound to honor its provisions under international customary law, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention against Torture.
As required by the binding international legal norm of non-refoulement, Lebanon is obligated not to return individuals to a situation where they would be at risk of persecution or serious human rights abuses. This same international law of non-refoulement prohibits Lebanon from rejecting Syria refugees fleeing for their lives and asylum-seekers at the border. At a bare minimum, Lebanon is required to permit entry to Syrian refugees seeking asylum while they investigate whether they need to be protected as refugees. It refuses this obligation as well.
According to Article 1 of the Refugee Convention, a Syrian refugee is a national of that country who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.
The Lebanese government accordingly is obligated to grant refugees fleeing Syria the right not to be forcibly returned, or refouled (Article 33).
Lebanon, in gross violation of international humanitarian law, also rejects the rights of Syrian refugees not to be barred entry or expelled, except under certain strictly defined conditions (Article 32), as well as exemption from penalties for illegal entry into Lebanon, the right to work (Article 17), the right to housing (Article 21), the right to education (Article 22), the right to public relief and assistance (Article 23), the right to freedom of religion and free access to courts (Articles 4 and 16), freedom of movement within the territory (Article 26), and the right to be issued identity and travel documents (Articles 27 and 28).
More than 50 Lebanese municipalities have also been targeting Syrian refugees with illegal Zionist and South African apartheid-type curfews that restrict refugees’ movements and contribute to a climate of discriminatory and retaliatory practices against Syrians generally. Such curfews violate international human rights law and are even illegal under Lebanese law.
Despite broad international criticism, many municipal police, and several local vigilante groups, continue to enforce the illegal curfews despite the fact that as far back as April of 2013, then Interior Minister Marwan Charbel declared was 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 by imposing them.
The British-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Legal Agenda has also publicly denounced the curfews, calling them a form of collective punishment and a violation of human rights. Less than six months ago the Norwegian Refugee Council, to its great credit, issued a fact sheet for lawyers about the curfews advising that they had no basis in Lebanese law.
Nadim Houry, the brilliant and indefatigable deputy Middle East Director for Human Rights Watch, has noted that, “These curfews are just contributing to an increasingly hostile environment for Syrian refugees in the country. The Lebanese authorities have presented no evidence that curfews for Syrian refugees are necessary for public order or security in Lebanon.”
The simple fact of the matter is that anyone lawfully present in a country has the right to freedom of movement. 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. Only under very limited circumstances—not present in this case—can restrictions to movement be enacted and they must be enacted in law and must be required “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.
As Human Rights Watch has argued, 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 against Syrians as opposed for example against Americans in Lebanon means any difference in treatment on the grounds of nationality must be very strictly justified. Lebanon has not and frankly cannot meet this burden of proof.
Lebanon’s Legal and Brotherly obligations
Lebanon’s international obligations to Syrian refugees fleeing the carnage next door include but are not limited to the following.
Lebanon must cease blocking Syrians and Palestinians escaping the conflict in Syria from accessing the territory of Lebanon under the principle of non-refoulement, a customary norm of international law binding on all states. Visa requirements that result in rejection at the border are amongst the prohibited measures.
Lebanon is obligated to cancel prohibitive fees for renewing visas, or the refusal to renew visas, which result in refugees being considered to be staying illegally in the country.
The Government of Lebanon must immediately cancel the new visa and resident requirements and allow all persons fleeing the conflict in Syria, who are normally resident in Syria, to enter Lebanon until such time that it is safe for them to return.
The Lebanese government must instruct municipalities to stop imposing curfews on Syrian refugees, to stop condoning vigilantism and to protect Syrians in Lebanon from retaliatory measures.
The government of Lebanon must cancel the broad ‘security campaign’ targeting Syrian workers that is currently being launched across Beirut. The unannounced raids on businesses that employ Syrian workers have been ongoing since December 10, 2014.
The Lebanese government should coordinate closely with the U.N. and develop criteria to ensure those suffering violence are able to cross into Lebanon.
Lebanese General Security officials at the Masnaa border crossing must ensure that no one fleeing Syria is forcibly returned to Syria in any manner whatsoever, including rejection at the border. General Security must immediately revoke all instructions to border officials and airlines which violate the principle of non-refoulement.
Refugees from Syria much be allowed to renew their residency in Lebanon until it is safe for them to return. Lebanon is obliged to waive the fees for renewal of visas for refugees from Syria or only charge a nominal fee.
Lebanese officials must make every effort not to separate families, particularly in cases where children are attempting to join their parents who are already in Lebanon. All children born in Lebanon must be registered in accordance with Lebanon’s obligations under the Convention on the Right of the Child, which means allowing refugees from Syria to register their children’s births regardless of visa status.
Lebanon must allow Syrian refugee children to register for secondary school and take their exams even if their visas have expired, in accordance with Lebanon’s obligation under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to make secondary education available and accessible to every child. Lebanon must also publish clear and transparent information about administrative procedures relating to refugees’ stay, legal status, and rights in Lebanon.
Measures can and should also be immediately taken on the level of the international community to end Lebanon’s cold war on refugees from Syria, a crisis torn country where it is claimed more than 76,000 people were killed in 2014, including almost 18,000 civilians.
A couple of examples….
Firstly, while donor states should continue to assist the Lebanese government to meet the needs of the Syrian refugee and local populations, they should suspend aid to Lebanon, including military aid, while they investigate to what extent municipalities receiving their assistance are imposing unlawful and discriminatory restrictions on Syrian refugees. If such reports are shown to be accurate, donor countries should immediately suspend that assistance until Lebanon complies with international humanitarian law on the subject of refugees.
Secondly, while its not this observer’s right to advise the government of Syria on how to conduct its foreign relations, and taking note of the important fact that Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, said this weekend in a statement quoted by Lebanon’s National News Agency that his country urged Lebanese “coordination” with Damascus, his government can do rather more.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry can employ the same “Reciprocity principle” of international relations that Lebanon continues to illegally use against the Palestinian refugees here for the sole purpose of denying them the elementary civil rights to work and to own a home. Syria can and should tell Lebanon’s “government” that unless the discriminatory measures taken against her temporary refugee citizens seeking refuge in “Brotherly Lebanon”, Damascus may employ the identical restrictive visa measures against Lebanese citizens seeking to enter Syria. This visa reciprocity measure is nearly universally applied among nations, and they determine how tough or easy to make it for each country’s citizens to enter the others.
This action by Syria may well assist Lebanese officials to recall the treatment the people of Syria granted to the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who stormed into Syria during their own 1975-1990 civil war and during the July 2006 Zionist aggression against Lebanon that killed hundreds of Lebanese and destroyed much of the country’s road, electric, and social service infrastructure and housing.
This observer arrived in Damascus from Washington in mid-July 2006 and recalls as if it were just last summer the Syrian people opening their homes and hearts to Lebanese refugees. I visited and saw first-hand Syrian homes, vacant apartments, schools, civic centers, two hospitals and clinics, parks opened to the Lebanese refugees. The Syrian people asked nothing in return. Lebanese were given free clothes and household necessities, medical, dental, optical and psychiatric care because they were refugees and needed help. Also food and cash vouchers.
Perhaps most importantly, the people of Syria gave refugees from Lebanon brotherly love and help in rebuilding their shattered lives until their return to their country.
As Genesis 4:1-9, the Holy Koran and the Pentateuch instruct us: We are our brother’s keeper.