HRW condemns ‘pressure’ on Syrians to leave Lebanon

At least 15,000 people, including 7,500 children, have been affected by Beirut’s order to demolish refugee shelters. (AFP)
Updated 06 July 2019

HRW condemns ‘pressure’ on Syrians to leave Lebanon

BEIRUT: Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday condemned Lebanon’s order for Syrian refugees to demolish their hard shelters as tantamount to “illegitimate pressure” on them to return to their war-torn country.
Lebanon, a country of some 4 million people, says it hosts at least 1.5 million Syrians on its soil after they fled the eight-year civil war next door, many living in informal settlements in the country’s east.
Nearly a million are registered as refugees with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
To discourage any permanent settlement, Lebanese authorities gave Syrians living in the region of Arsal until July 1 to demolish shelters made of anything but timber and plastic sheeting.
Families have been forced to tear down any small cinderblock room they may have built, with the army stepping in to destroy at least 20 remaining hard shelters as the deadline passed on Monday.
“This crackdown on housing code violations should be seen for what it is, which is illegitimate pressure on Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon,” HRW refugee rights director Bill Frelick said.
“Many of those affected have real reasons to fear returning to Syria, including arrests, torture and ill treatment by Syrian intelligence branches,” he said.
After several Russia-backed victories against opposition fighters and militants since 2015, the Damascus regime controls around 60 percent of Syria’s territory.
Young Syrian men in Lebanon have also told AFP they fear military conscription if they return.

HIGHLIGHTS

• To discourage any permanent settlement, Lebanese authorities gave Syrians living in the region of Arsal until July 1 to demolish shelters made of anything but timber and plastic sheeting.

• Families have been forced to tear down any small cinderblock room they may have built, with the army stepping in to destroy at least 20 remaining hard shelters.

Aids groups have estimated up to 15,000 people, including 7,500 children, to have been affected by the demolition order.
One family made to destroy their shelter last month told AFP they would not return to Syria as their Syrian home had been destroyed by war, leaving them instead to face another harsh winter in a tent.
Echoing similar warnings from other rights monitors, HRW said the demolitions were just one of several methods used to pressure Syrians into leaving Lebanon.
“They include ramped up arrests and deportations, closing of shops, and confiscation or destruction of unlicensed vehicles, on top of other long-standing restrictions, including curfews and evictions, and barriers to refugee education, legal residency, and work authorization,” Frelick said.
“Lebanon shouldn’t create pressures that cumulatively coerce refugees to return involuntarily in conditions that are not conducive to a safe and dignified return,” he said.
Lebanese politicians and part of the population have called for Syrian refugees to go home, blaming them for a string of economic woes in the country.
Syria’s war has killed 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since it started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.


Iraq officials must ‘step up’ to enact reforms: UN envoy

Updated 27 min 33 sec ago

Iraq officials must ‘step up’ to enact reforms: UN envoy

  • UN has put forward a phased roadmap calling for an immediate end to violence and electoral reform within 2 weeks
  • Protesters have escalated their demands to deep-rooted regime change

BAGHDAD: Iraqi officials must ramp up their response to mass demonstrations demanding an overhaul of the political system, the UN representative in Baghdad told AFP in an exclusive interview Wednesday.
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, who heads the UN’s Iraq mission (UNAMI), said the country’s authorities must “step up to the plate and make things happen.”
“They are elected by the people, they are accountable to them,” she said.
Protests broke out in Baghdad and the country’s Shiite-majority south in early October over rampant corruption, lack of jobs and notoriously poor services.
One in five people lives below the poverty line, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC’s second biggest producer.
The United Nations has proposed a phased roadmap that, in a crucial step, was endorsed by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani after meeting Hennis-Plasschaert.
It calls for an immediate end to violence, electoral reform and anti-graft measures within two weeks followed by constitutional amendments and infrastructure legislation within three months.
Hennis-Plasschaert discussed the plan with lawmakers on the sidelines of a parliamentary session on Wednesday, telling them: “Now is the time to act, otherwise any momentum will be lost — lost at a time when many, many Iraqis demand concrete results.”
Protesters have escalated their demands to deep-rooted regime change, unimpressed by government promises of reform.
“There is lots at stake here. Public trust is at an all-time low,” Hennis-Plasschaert told AFP.
“Nothing is more detrimental to public trust than saying ‘A’ and doing ‘B.’ Nothing is more harmful than overpromising and under-delivering,” she added.
Hennis-Plasschaert, 46, was named UNAMI chief last year after having served as the Netherlands defense minister from 2012 until 2017.
She is one of the very few diplomatic figures who meets with Sistani, the revered 89-year-old cleric who never appears in public.
Following their meeting on Monday, she said Sistani, known as the marjaiyah, feared political forces were “not serious enough” to enact reforms.
“If the three authorities — executive, judiciary and legislative — are not able or willing to conduct these reforms decisively, there must be a way to think of a different approach,” she warned at the time.
Pressed by AFP on what the “different approach” could be, Hennis-Plasschaert declined to elaborate, citing “the confidentiality we have with him.”
“The conversation with Grand Ayatollah Sistani is always straightforward, open, and frank, but I cannot go into further detail,” the top diplomat said.
Demonstrators gathering in the main protest camp of Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Wednesday said her meeting with Sistani helped bolster their crowds.
Hennis-Plasschaert met with protesters in Tahrir last month, even riding in the tuk-tuk rickshaw that has become an icon of the uprising for ferrying wounded protesters to medics.
“They are losing brothers and friends in the streets,” she said of the young protesters she had met.
More than 300 people have died and 15,000 people have been wounded since demonstrations erupted on October 1.
“We are witnessing rising numbers of deaths and injured every day. It’s horrific,” Hennis-Plasschaert said.
The protests initially fractured the political class but it has rallied in recent days to prop up the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
Politicians closed ranks following a series of meetings with top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, an extremely influential figure who often brokers deals among Iraq’s fractured political class.
Hennis-Plasschaert told AFP she did not seek to be a counter-weight to Iranian influence but said she feared that “spoilers” could prevent progress.
“This country unfortunately knows many actors, external, internal, that could act as spoilers (and) undermine the legitimate demands of the people,” she said.