BEIRUT: Caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Wednesday that there were gangs smuggling Syrians into Lebanon illegally across the border through the Bekaa or Akkar in exchange for large sums of money, “while the country can no longer bear the burden of refugees.”
Mikati expressed surprise at the criticism directed toward Lebanon for deporting Syrians who entered the country illegally.
The announcement of the deportation of around 50 Syrians from Lebanon to Syria two weeks ago sparked international protests.
Lisa Abou Khaled, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told Arab News: “The UNHCR has noticed an increase in the number of raids on Syrian (refugee camps) in both Mount Lebanon and the north, and as of April, the UNHCR has confirmed at least 13 raids and has received reports of Syrians being detained for future deportation, including those who are known and registered with the UNHCR.”
A number of municipalities in Lebanese regions have started surveys and inspections to register refugees and restrict their movements in the towns where they reside.
Calls circulated on social media on Tuesday for Syrian refugees to protest in front of the UNHCR building in Jnah, south of Beirut, on Wednesday, while counter-calls were issued by the Lebanese to prevent them from protesting.
On Tuesday night, a police officer in the municipality of Al-Qlayaa in southern Lebanon was assaulted by a Syrian refugee who violated the night curfew. The officer was taken to the hospital, while the police arrested the refugee and are investigating the incident.
Syrian opposition figure Kamal Labwani threatened the Lebanese army in a video posted on social media and called on refugees to carry weapons to defend themselves.
On Wednesday, the Lebanese army and its intelligence, internal security forces, and riot control units deployed around the UNHCR headquarters in anticipation of the protest and to prevent any clashes.
On Tuesday evening, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi sent a letter to the internal security forces asking them “to prevent protests by Syrian refugees and counter Lebanese protests.”
On Wednesday, Mikati chaired a ministerial meeting attended by leaders of security agencies to discuss the Syrian refugee file. The meeting confirmed Lebanon’s right to enact “measures previously taken by the Higher Defense Council in 2019 against violators who enter Lebanon illegally and without official and legal documents.”
The attendees requested the UNHCR, “within a deadline of one week from the date of the meeting, to provide the Ministry of Interior with data on Syrian refugees in all their forms” and asked “that the status of refugee be dropped for anyone who leaves Lebanese territory.”
The attendees emphasized the necessity of “registering the births of Syrians on Lebanese territory in coordination with UNHCR.”
They also reiterated their call for foreign countries “to share the burden of Syrian refugees, particularly given the increasing numbers of refugees and the worsening economic crisis.”
The attendees requested “the Ministry of Labor, in coordination with the General Directorate of General Security, to tighten monitoring of Syrian labor within the permitted sectors.”
They also called on the minister of justice to investigate the possibility of immediately handing over detainees and convicts to the Syrian state.
The Lebanese government estimates the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to be over 1.5 million, distributed in camps and communities on Lebanese territory, mostly concentrated in the Bekaa and northern regions.
Abou Khaled, UNHCR spokesperson, said: “The number of Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR reached 805,326 as of last March, but the UNHCR knows that the number of non-registered refugees in Lebanon is higher and believes that the total amounts to 1.5 million.”
As for the illegal movement of Syrian refugees between Lebanon and Syria, Abou Khaled said: “The conversations and interactions between the UNHCR and the refugees indicate that back-and-forth trips to Syria are rare. The costs and risks of these illegal trips cross border — often with the participation of smugglers — are high, preventing the majority of Syrians from resorting to these practices.”
Abou Khaled affirmed that “in the cases where the UNHCR identifies the return of a Syrian refugee to Syria, we double-check the information and we cancel their file. However, sometimes, there might be urgent reasons prompting refugees to go back to Syria, and they do that for a certain reason and for a limited period of time.”
As for the ministerial committee’s request to share the UNHCR’s data, Abou Khaled said: “The UNHCR encourages the Lebanese government to cooperate more in this matter by sharing with us the data it has on the refugees’ movement, so we can review them and compare them with ours. The UNHCR reiterates its keenness to work with the relevant authorities in a systematic manner that encourages data sharing and movement monitoring.”
The UNHCR fears that those being deported are at risk, even if they are not registered as refugees.
Following a meeting with the ministerial committee, Mustafa Bayram, minister of labor, said: “Around 37,000 Syrians entered Syria during the Eid Al-Fitr period and came back to Lebanon after spending the holiday vacation there, which deprives them of their refugee status.”
Bassam Mawlawi, the interior minister, emphasized that “Syrians in Lebanon are subject to the Lebanese law and order. They should be registered with the competent official authorities. Their situation must be regulated because this chaos is detrimental to Lebanon, their interests, and the security situation, which we are responsible for.”
Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, urged Lebanese authorities to “halt unlawful deportation of Syrian refugees for fear that they are at risk of torture or persecution at the hands of the Syrian government upon return to war-ravaged Syria.”