On January 18, Lebanon’s human rights record was reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review.
Prior to the session, the Lebanese government submitted a report to the HRC on the progress it had made in addressing the shortcomings and failures identified by the task force during its previous assessment in 2015. In the 27-page report covering a A variety of human rights related issues, there was also a section devoted to the rights of the more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees that Lebanon currently hosts. Beyond providing information on the legal and administrative framework it uses to regulate the presence of Syrian nationals in Lebanon, the Lebanese government has, however, said very little in this report about the difficulties that Syrian refugees are currently facing in the country. .
In three short, crisp paragraphs, the government explained that it was working with international partners to address the “growing humanitarian needs” of these refugees and expressed concern at the “downside risk” in international funding for programs aimed at maintain their living conditions. . However, he did not even mention the vicious discrimination, dehumanization and violence to which Syrian refugees in Lebanon are routinely subjected with impunity.
On December 27, 2020, for example, a group of Lebanese men set fire to an informal refugee camp near the town of Bhanin in the northern region of Miniyeh. The flames ripped through the shelters of tents housing some 370 Syrian refugees, including dozens of children, leaving them without shelter or property in the dead of winter. A number of the refugees also suffered burns as a result of the attack.
The violent attack on Bhannine camp unfortunately came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the plight of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Although it made headlines around the world due to the extent of the destruction it caused, it was only the latest in a series of similar incidents. Indeed, due to the systematic dehumanization of Syrian refugees in the Lebanese media and in political discourse, nowadays even the smallest conflicts between the Syrians and the locals often result in violence.
Lebanese politicians and media have long blamed Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s myriad of social, political and economic problems. But as the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous explosion at the Port of Beirut have increased pressure on the state, the vilification of Syrian refugees has gained in force, with dire consequences. They have been wrongly blamed for the government’s failure to stop the spread of the virus and bring the growing economic crisis under control, and have become the target of public anger.
Local authorities across Lebanon have also used the pandemic to redouble their efforts to isolate Syrian refugees from the wider community. At least 21 Lebanese municipalities have introduced restrictions on Syrian refugees that do not apply to Lebanese citizens. In some regions, movement and assembly bans were imposed on Syrians before being extended to the Lebanese. As informal refugee settlements are subject to curfews, more security personnel have been deployed to these areas to monitor the daily lives of refugees.
These discriminatory practices have not only created the false impression that refugees are more likely to spread the virus, increasing anti-refugee sentiment in the country, but have also limited the refugees’ ability to access most basic health services. in the middle of a public health emergency. . In the early days of the pandemic, civil society organizations providing health services to Syrian refugees reported a sharp drop in the number of people visiting their clinics due to strict curfews and movement restrictions.
Access to health care became such an impossibility for Syrian refugees during the pandemic that in November a Syrian father who was unable to obtain medical treatment for his sick daughter attempted to set himself on fire. outside the UNHCR offices in Beirut. It was tragically only the latest in a long list of self-immolation by Syrian refugees in the country.
While COVID-19 and the discriminatory measures introduced to combat it undoubtedly made life more difficult for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, their situation was already dire long before the start of the pandemic.
In Lebanon, most Syrian refugees do not have legal residency and less than 1 percent have a work permit. This means that most Syrians in Lebanon are destitute and live with constant fear of detention and deportation.
The fear of deportation is most serious for those who left the Syrian army and fled to Lebanon. Lebanese security forces are increasingly detaining Syrian defectors and handing them over to the al-Assad regime, although these actions are illegal under international law. Earlier this month, for example, a Syrian named Hussein Jumaa al-Sayyid was reportedly arrested in the Lebanese town of Baalbek and promptly handed over to Syrian security forces.
While Lebanon is unable to expel all Syrian refugees living within its borders due to its humanitarian obligations under international law, it is undoubtedly doing all it can to put pressure on the Syrians to that they leave the country.
The refusal to give legal status to an overwhelming majority of refugees, the discriminatory COVID-19 control measures, the dehumanizing rhetoric adopted by most media organizations and politicians, the bureaucratic obstacles that prevent them from obtaining permits and Basic certificates, appear to be part of a concerted campaign by the Lebanese government to make the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon so miserable that they find themselves with no choice but to return to their own country.
In November, the Syrian regime hosted a Russian-backed conference on the return of refugees to Damascus. The European Union, like many other nations and institutions, declined to attend the event, saying the situation in Syria was clearly not safe for a return. Lebanon, however, sent a representative to the conference and apparently accepted the Assad regime’s position that the security situation in Syria has improved and most refugees can now return safely. This assessment is, of course, patently inaccurate, given that illegal detentions and enforced disappearances continue at full speed across the country. There are also continuing reports of torture and forced military conscription from the country.
Assuming that Syria is now safe enough for the return of refugees, Lebanon puts the lives of millions of people at risk. Moreover, it creates the perception that Syrians choose to stay in Lebanon when they have a safe home to return to. This is dangerous, because it fuels anti-refugee sentiments among the Lebanese public and increases the possibility of violent altercations between refugees and locals, like the one we witnessed in Miniyeh.
On January 18, when the Lebanese government’s human rights record was examined by the HRC, the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon finally received well-deserved attention from the international community. Some member governments have raised important questions about the myriad of issues facing refugees and signaled that they will pressure the Lebanese authorities to take constructive steps to ensure that these refugees live in conditions. acceptable.
Nonetheless, those same states had already made recommendations on the situation of Syrian refugees during the previous review – recommendations that were largely ignored by the Lebanese state.
If we are to see the Lebanese government take decisive action to address the dire human rights situation of Syrian refugees in the country, and reverse its discriminatory and sometimes illegal policies, the international community should make this issue a priority and condition any assistance to Lebanon. on the government’s respect for the rights of Syrian refugees.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.