Syrian refugees in Lebanon and forced repatriation
Last Wednesday in Beirut, a military court ordered the forced deportation of a Syrian officer-turned-rebel back to Syria. He was charged with entering the country illegally two months ago. Needless to say, this ruling is in a clear contravention of international law regarding the rights of refugees.
The court’s decision was the latest in a series of actions taken by the pro-Syrian authorities of Lebanon against refugees to discourage them from entering the country.
The officer in question, Lt. Mohammad Hassan Tlass, was fined by the court and sentenced to two months in prison, followed by deportation.
It goes without saying that this officer, if sent back to Syria, risks immediate capture by Syrian security forces and allied militias, torture and summary execution.
During the trial, the 30-year-old disclosed that he had defected from the Syrian regular army and joined the Free Syrian Army, the main revolutionary armed group. He also told the tribunal that he had entered Lebanon to bring a wounded comrade to safety.
The decision by the Lebanese court is one of the most blatant violations of refugee law in this conflict, but not the first.
Because of proximity, kinship and common culture, Lebanon has had a continuous influx of Syrians escaping the crisis in their country. Many stay with relatives or friends on the Lebanese side of the border, but others have sought assistance from Lebanese and international refugee aid organizations.
By mid-January, some (152,000) Syrian refugees had registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), with an additional (67,000) refugees waiting to be registered. However, registration of Syrian refugees with international agencies does not grant them legal status in Lebanon, whose government is dominated by pro-Syrian factions. Among Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon has been the least hospitable to those refugees. As a result, they are at risk of detention and possibly deportation back to Syria. Last August, according to Human Rights Watch, Lebanon deported 14 Syrians back to their country. Overall, Syrian refugees in Lebanon feel insecure, fearing detention by security forces and kidnapping by armed groups.
The Lebanese government’s hostility toward Syrian refugees may be motivated in part by the fact that it is dominated by Hezballah, a close ally of both Syria and protégé of Iran. Its members have been reported to be fighting alongside Syria’s regular army. When some of its men were captured by armed opposition groups in Syria last year, attacks on Syrian refugees in Lebanon intensified.
But regardless of the political leanings of its government, Lebanon has clear obligations under international law, including the Refugee Convention, which clearly prohibits forced deportation of refugees.
Prohibition of the forced repatriation (return of a refugee to his home country, or “nonrefoulement” in French) is one of the most fundamental principles in international refugee law. This principle is laid out in Article 33 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention, for short), which stipulates that no state “shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” As such, it has long been established under international law to prohibit the forced expulsion of a person to his own country, or to another country, where there is a real risk of persecution, or where the person would be at risk of a serious violation of human rights.
It is thus clear that forced repatriation of Syrian refugees is a grave breach of refugee law.
Similarly, the Lebanese courts’ practice of penalizing Syrian refugees for entering the country illegally runs against the letter and spirit of international law. It is true that entering a country illegally in ordinary circumstances is an offense under most jurisdictions. However, refugees are treated differently. Article 31 of the Refugee Convention says that refugees should not be penalized for having entered a country illegally if they have come directly from a place where they were in danger and have made themselves known to the authorities. Therefore, refugee law jurisprudence has maintained that asylum seekers should not be detained for being in possession of forged identity papers or for destroying identity or travel documents.
Luckily, the ordered repatriation of Lt. Tlas has mobilized international refugee groups more than earlier deportations carried out in Lebanon. As a result, the Lebanese government has indicated that it would stop the deportation of Syrian refugees. President Michel Sleiman’s twitter account announced cryptically this weekend that “Instructions are that no one shall be deported to Syria, in deference to human rights considerations.”
Whether presidential wishes would be able to prevail, given the domination of pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon, remains to be seen. The real test would be in the fate of this Syrian officer and other refugees facing similar charges in Lebanon.