BEIRUT: Security concerns triggered the Lebanese government’s recent decision to consider revoking the refugee status of Syrians who travel back to their country, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said in a TV interview Sunday evening.
“The decision of the Lebanese government is based on security concerns,” Machnouk said.
The new policy, which came into effect Sunday, comes just days before the Syrian presidential election on June 3, prompting Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali to say Sunday that he hoped the Lebanese authorities would reconsider their decision, according to state media agency SANA.
Machnouk revealed that the Syrian government rejected a plan proposed by Lebanon through mediators to set up polling stations in the no man’s land between the two countries’ borders, thus allowing Syrians to exercise their democratic rights without falling foul of the new rules. Instead Syria plans to set up polling stations on its border crossings with Lebanon.
Machnouk categorically denied rumors that the new governmental policy – announced Saturday – was related to controversy over the enormous turnout of Syrian refugees and expatriates who voted as part of their country’s presidential election at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze last week.
Some Lebanese politicians and pundits condemned the flagrant display of patriotism, as thousands of cars and buses adorned with Syrian flags clogged traffic around Beirut.
Syria envoy Ali reacted by saying: “It is unfortunate that some people have criticized the election at the embassy, particularly when Syrian people were supporting their state.”
However Machnouk admitted the Lebanese authorities were growing increasingly concerned about election-related violence: “We worry that there will be clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups.”
The policy aims to curb the number of refugees who claim humanitarian aid while still traveling between Lebanon and Syria. In remarks made last Thursday, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said a substantial percent had come to the country for economic rather than humanitarian reasons.
“If they have a safe place to go in Syria, why do they come back here?” Machnouk said.
Saturday’s statement from the Interior Ministry announcing the policy stated: “In the framework of organizing the entry and exit of Syrians in Lebanon, all Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR are asked to refrain from entering Syria starting June 1, 2014, or else they might be stripped of their refugee status.”With roughly 1.5 million refugees in the country, Lebanese authorities have vowed to reduce the number of Syrian refugees arriving and staying. The government last month announced new, onerous requirements for Palestinians from Syria entering Lebanon, with most being turned away at the border since then.
“The Lebanese want to embrace the refugees and they have the will to help them,” Machnouk said. “But Lebanon is a small country with very limited resources. We do not want to turn the Lebanese into refugees in their own country.”
UNHCR spokesman Dana Sleiman agreed that the decision likely reflected fears that the upcoming election would raise tensions between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese host communities.
“The ministry has noted specifically its concern with ensuring that actions by refugees – including exercising their right to vote inside Syria – do not provoke adverse reactions inside Lebanon or stoke hostility between refugees and the communities in which they reside,” she said.
But she pointed out that the policy was likely to affect many refugees who have legitimate, nonpolitical reasons for re-entering Syria.
“Some Syrian refugees return briefly to their home country, including to renew their documents, check on elderly or sick family members or property, and to see if the situation in their villages is safe enough for return,” Sleiman said.
Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in MENA, also criticized the development, saying “that sort of policy is not based on what international norms require in terms of protection [for refugees].”
Machnouk, however, said the decision was in line with the U.N. convention on refugees – which Lebanon has not signed – stating that any refugee who “has voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality” automatically loses their refugee status.
Human rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh said that while this was within the letter of the law, it needed to be determined “case by case.”
“For somebody who goes back to Syria and feels that there is no danger at all ... and stays for one weekend or one week or one month, in that case of course the [United Nations refugee] convention cannot apply to him,” he said. “But if [a refugee] takes a risk and goes back because their mother or father has died, it doesn’t mean he feels it’s safe.”
Questions also remain as to how the government plans to enforce the new directive. “There is no clear meaning as to how [this policy] is going to be put into practice,” said HRW’s Houry.
Moreover, he highlighted that the situation on the ground in Syria remained dire. “We’re hearing these echoes ... that things are better in Syria,” he said. “The thing is that this doesn’t actually match the reality of what’s going on in Syria. The bombings, killings and arbitrary detentions have not actually gone down.”