By Lama Fakih, Director, Middle East and North Africa Division | –
Human Rights Watch – Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine announced a government plan this week to begin returning 15,000 Syrian refugees to Syria a month, saying: “The war was over and the country has become safe.”
The alarming news, which would be a clear breach of Lebanon’s international obligations, is being done without the involvement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Charafeddine said authorities planned to go ahead nonetheless, and asked UNHCR to suspend assistance to those selected for return.
In the case of opposition activists, who risk detention, torture, and even death if returned to Syria, the minister suggested they be deported to third countries or pledge to the Syrian government that they “not engage in any negative action in Syrian territory,” presumably based on the faulty assumption that it would protect them from abuse.
Contrary to the minister’s statements, Syria is anything but safe for returnees. Syrian refugees who returned between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias.
Any forced returns to Syria would amount to a breach of Lebanon’s refoulement obligations not to forcibly return people to countries where they face a clear risk of torture or other persecution.
Syria’s economy and infrastructure have also been devastated by more than 10 years of conflict and sanctions. With no reliable information networks for Syrians to make informed decisions about return, and with international aid agencies lacking adequate access to monitor returns, countries like Lebanon hosting Syrian refugees should not force anyone to return.
As a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 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.
International donor governments should help host countries like Lebanon by fully funding humanitarian assistance programs and resettling a greater number of Syrians living in Lebanon, and should speak out against forced or coercive returns to Syria. By pursuing an aggressive returns agenda, with decrees and regulations designed to make Syrian refugees’ lives difficult in order to pressure them to leave, Lebanon further undermines the rights of vulnerable people.