Plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon must not be ignored

The COVID-19 pandemic made an already dire situation worse for more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Lebanon.

Syrian refugees salvage belongings from the wreckage of their shelters at a camp set on fire overnight in the northern Lebanese town of Bhanine on December 27, 2020 [File: Ibrahim Chaloub/AFP]

On January 18, Lebanon’s human rights record was examined by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Working Group.

Prior to the session, the government of Lebanon submitted a report to the UNHRC on the progress it had made in addressing the shortcomings and failures the working group identified in its previous assessment in 2015. In the 27-page report covering a variety of human rights-related issues, there was also a section dedicated to the rights of the more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees Lebanon is currently hosting. Beyond providing information on the legal and administrative framework it uses to regulate the presence of Syrian nationals in Lebanon, however, the Lebanese government said very little in this report about the hardships Syrian refugees are currently facing in the country.

In three short and dry paragraphs, the government explained that it is working with international partners to meet the “growing humanitarian needs” of these refugees and expressed concern over the “risk of a decline” in international funding for programmes aiming to uphold their living conditions. However, it did not even mention the vicious discrimination, dehumanisation and violence Syrian refugees in Lebanon are regularly being subjected to with impunity.

On December 27, 2020, for example, a group of Lebanese men set fire to an informal refugee settlement near the town of Bhanine in the northern Miniyeh region. The flames tore through tented shelters housing some 370 Syrian refugees, including dozens of children, leaving them with no shelter or possessions in the middle of winter. A number of refugees also suffered burn injuries as a result of the attack.

The violent attack on the Bhannine camp, sadly, did not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. While it made headlines across the world because of the scale of the destruction it caused, it was just the latest in a string of similar incidents. Indeed, due to the systematic dehumanisation of Syrian refugees in the Lebanese media and political discourse, these days even the smallest disputes between Syrians and the locals often result in violence.

Lebanese politicians and media have long blamed Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s myriad social, political and economic problems. But as the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous Beirut port explosion increased the pressures on the state, the vilification of Syrian refugees gained additional force, with disastrous consequences. They have been falsely blamed for the government’s inability to stop the spread of the virus and bring the growing economic crisis under control, and became targets of public anger.

Local authorities across Lebanon also used the pandemic to double down on their efforts to isolate Syrian refugees from the wider community. At least 21 Lebanese municipalities introduced restrictions on Syrian refugees that do not apply to Lebanese citizens. In some areas, bans on movement and gathering were imposed on Syrians before they were extended to Lebanese. As informal refugee settlements were put under curfews, more security personnel were deployed to these areas to police the daily lives of refugees.

These discriminatory practices not only created the false impression that refugees are more likely to spread the virus, increasing the anti-refugee sentiment in the country, but 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 organisations providing healthcare services to Syrian refugees reported a sharp decline in the number of people visiting their clinics due to strict curfews and movement restrictions.

Accessing healthcare became such an impossibility for Syrian refugees during the pandemic that, in November, a Syrian father who had been unable to secure medical treatment for his sick daughter tried to set himself on fire in front of the UNHCR offices in Beirut. This 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 beginning of the pandemic.

In Lebanon, most Syrian refugees do not have legal residency and less than 1 percent have a work permit. This means most Syrians in Lebanon are destitute and live with the constant fear of detention and deportation.

The fear of deportation is most severe for those who defected from the Syrian military and fled to Lebanon. Lebanese security forces are increasingly detaining Syrian defectors and handing them over to the al-Assad regime, despite such actions being illegal under international law. Earlier this month, for example, a Syrian man named Hussein Jumaa al-Sayyid was reportedly arrested in the Lebanese town of Baalbek and swiftly handed over to Syrian security forces.

While Lebanon is unable to deport all Syrian refugees living within its borders due to its humanitarian obligations under international law, it is undoubtedly doing everything it can to pressure Syrians into leaving the country.

The refusal to give legal status to an overwhelming majority of the refugees, the discriminatory COVID-19 control measures, the dehumanising rhetoric adopted by most media organisations and politicians, the bureaucratic obstacles preventing them from obtaining basic permits and certificates, appear to be parts of a concerted campaign by the Lebanese government to make the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon so miserable that they end up with no choice other than returning to their own country.

In November, the Syrian regime held a Russia-backed conference on refugee returns in Damascus. The European Union, like many other nations and institutions, refused to attend the event saying the situation in Syria is clearly not safe for return. Lebanon, however, sent a representative to the conference and seemingly 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, as illegal detentions and forced disappearances are continuing at full force across the country. There are also continued reports of torture and forced military conscription coming from the country.

By assuming the position that Syria is now safe enough for refugees to return, Lebanon is putting the lives of millions at risk. Moreover, it is creating the perception that Syrians are choosing to stay in Lebanon despite having a safe home to return to. This is dangerous, as it fuels the 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 scrutinised by the UNHRC, the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon finally received some much-needed attention from the international community. Some member governments raised important questions about the myriad problems facing the refugees and signalled that they will pressure Lebanese authorities to take constructive action to ensure these refugees are living in acceptable conditions.

Nevertheless, these very 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 Lebanon’s government take decisive steps to address the dire human rights situation of Syrian refugees in the country, and reverse its discriminatory and at times illegal policies, the international community should make the issue a priority and make any assistance to Lebanon conditional on the government respecting the rights of Syrian refugees.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.