Syrian Refugees Suffer a Wave of Deportations

Recent campaigns in Lebanon and Turkey are fueled by politicians, xenophobia and economic calamity

Syrian Refugees Suffer a Wave of Deportations
Syrian refugees in Lebanon prepare to board buses bound for their homeland in August 2019. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

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On April 28, following threats of deportation back to Syria, a refugee named Anas Ali AlMuseitaf died by suicide in the Ghobeiry suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. The 26-year-old, originally from the eastern Aleppo countryside, hanged himself with an electric wire. He had fled to Lebanon in 2017 to escape compulsory military service in Syria and had been working in construction in Beirut. However, he was unable to renew his papers and felt he had no choice but to take his own life. Anas was survived by a wife and daughter in Syria whom he had not seen for six years.

Anas’ death was a manifestation of the anxiety and terror that have plagued Syrian refugees living in Lebanon in recent weeks, amid an ongoing campaign of arrests and deportations that has prompted many Syrians living in the country to change their place of residence to protect themselves and their loved ones.

“We always remain at home, with our door shut,” Ziad Amr, a Syrian activist who fled to Lebanon in 2018, who asked that his real name be replaced with an alias for fear of retaliation, told New Lines. “We are terrorized by the looming possibility of arrest, forced disappearance and torture.”

Once the clock ticks 5 in the afternoon, those who live in the house elect to remain silent and avoid any noise or stepping out onto any balconies, fearing that their neighbors might report them to the security forces because they are Syrians.

“I faced charges of protesting and inciting people to protest back in Syria during the revolution,” Amr said. “If the Lebanese deport me, I will be arrested, and I know for a fact that I won’t make it out alive.”

Social media users have expressed their dismay at the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon who feel that death by suicide is preferable to submitting to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus. Lebanon has been deporting Syrians to their war-torn country in alarming numbers in recent weeks, despite concerns from human rights organizations that they may be sent to face abuse, torture and persecution upon their return.

Mohammad Hasan, the executive director of Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), told New Lines: “The recent security escalation against Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a cause for serious concern, as most refugees do not have valid residency permits and are being forcibly deported by the Lebanese army without the right to appear before a judge or appeal the deportation decision, and without a chance to appeal for humanitarian protection.”

Hasan detailed how the Lebanese army and intelligence forces are carrying out arbitrary security raids on the residences of Syrian refugees, including homes, residential areas and camps in several Lebanese provinces and districts. These involve searches of residences, arbitrary arrests of hundreds of refugees and their families, and forced deportations. During these raids, many refugees, including men, women and children, are subjected to mistreatment, physical assault and humiliation. Their official documents are confiscated and their private vehicles are vandalized or seized.

Amr said he knew of a former soldier who deserted the Syrian military and was registered with the U.N. refugee agency but was nevertheless deported to Syria, where he was arrested and disappeared.

“His profile left no doubt as to the perils that await him if deported, yet that didn’t stop them,” he said. “Imagine what would happen to normal people like us?”

This wave of enforced deportation in Lebanon is among the many struggles that Syrians are experiencing globally. In a parallel campaign, Turkey is witnessing an eruption in anti-Syrian discourse as the country approaches what is deemed one of the most critical elections in Turkish history on May 14. Today, Turkey grapples with a deep financial crisis, making the support of millions of migrants a crucial political issue during the election. A survey conducted last year revealed that 82% of Turkish voters want their government to send Syrians back to their country, and 85% of supporters of the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, favored this idea. According to various polls, most Turks blame refugees — specifically Syrians — for the high cost of living in the country. Many in the president’s party blamed its poor performance in the last parliamentary election on its softer stance on the refugee issue.

In Turkey, there are currently over 3.5 million Syrians who have temporary protection as well as hundreds of thousands more with valid residence permits and citizenships. Some Syrians have been living in the country for over a decade; nearly 900,000 children born in Turkey are of Syrian descent. For them, Turkey is the only home they have ever known.

But the overwhelming anti-Syrian sentiment in the country has allowed politicians on all sides of the election, including nationalist parties, to take advantage of the issue. Given the growing rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus and an ongoing aversion to a supposed “Arabization” of Turkey, the specter of mass deportations continues to loom large.

“Amidst Turkey’s election season, politicians on all sides are exploiting and playing up the migration issue, and vowing to deport the refugees back to Syria,” said Merve Tahiroğlu, the Turkey program director for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). “A mass deportation in the near future is not out of the question, given the ongoing rapprochement with the Assad regime. If the opposition wins, this rapprochement is likely to continue and perhaps even accelerate.”

In Lebanon, calls for the refugees’ return significantly increased after the 2019 economic collapse, with many blaming the refugees for the country’s economic, social and security failures. On April 20, amid growing hostility toward Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Maroun Khoury, the general secretary of the Lebanese General Federation of Unions, launched a national campaign aimed at “liberating Lebanon from demographic occupation.” The campaign called on Lebanese citizens to resist what Khoury described as an “occupation” that has allegedly greatly harmed Lebanon’s economy, infrastructure and resources. He argued that the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has consumed the country’s capacities, forcing Lebanon to spend over $50 billion on the issue since 2011.

The call sparked a protest in front of the Beirut office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and numerous social media pages and campaigns have emerged warning of the dangers of the Syrian presence in Lebanon and calling on citizens to act against it.

The disinformation campaigns agitating against Syrian refugees have reached a fever pitch. They have featured an old video of Kamal al-Labwani, a Syrian opposition figure, calling for refugees to arm themselves; false reports of Syrians slaughtering dogs and selling their meat to Lebanese citizens, which were denied by mayors of the two towns where the news circulated; and false claims of Syrians attacking Lebanese people and dumping waste on the streets of Lebanon. Another rumor alleged that a delivery company employing Syrian workers was actually a cover for a Syrian refugee security operations room. There have also been false reports of weapons being discovered inside refugee camps and accusations of an Islamic State group presence therein.

Akhbar Al Saha, an independent Lebanese platform that debunks the disinformation feeding the anti-Syrian wave taking over the country, has had its hands full in recent weeks.

“Every month, we publish a racism report in which we add all discriminatory statements from politicians, media persons or public figures,” says Farah, a team member from Akhbar Al Saha. “This month, we almost published nothing — no report could’ve encompassed the racism we witnessed in April.”

ACHR’s Mohammad Hasan says the refugee issue requires serious assistance from the international community to resettle refugees in a third country because of the lack of safe, dignified and voluntary conditions for their return. Lebanese politicians use the refugee issue as a tool to evade their responsibilities in governing the country amid its financial and economic collapse, as well as to pressure the international community to obtain funding. Yet the Lebanese government is not interested in regulating refugee affairs and no serious initiatives have been proposed in previous years.

Amid the inaction in Lebanon and Turkey, refugees are again left to fend for themselves.

“Nightmares consume my mind every time I rest my head on a pillow,” said Amr. “I guess it’s lucky that insomnia never lets me sleep anyway.”

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