BEIRUT: Despite criticism from Syrians and rights organizations, a ministerial committee meeting chaired by the prime minister threw its support Monday behind several policies aimed at curbing the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas described the presence of over 1 million Syrian refugees as “the most dangerous crisis in Lebanon’s history,” saying all political parties had come to realize that the crisis was a “Lebanese matter rather than sectarian or partisan” issue.
The committee agreed to implement a new policy by which Syrians who return to their country would lose their refugee status, a policy that went into effect over the weekend.
An Interior Ministry source shed some light on the process by which it would be enforced, saying the mechanism to un-register Syrian refugees who cross the border into their home country would be honed with time and the support of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.
“At this point, General Security don’t know who [among the arrivals] has refugee status or not, because the list of registered refugees is with UNHCR,” he told The Daily Star.
In time, he added, General Security would require refugee status to be included in the entry permit of arriving Syrians to keep track of cross-border movements.
The source cited Section C of the 1951 Refugee Convention – a document that Lebanon has not signed – outlining the conditions under which a refugee ceases to claim the status.
“This is the start of reorganizing the status of [Syrian] refugees in Lebanon,” he said. “Everything is being done with all the legal consultants and experts on international law.”
The rationale marks the first time Lebanon has used an instrument of international law to limit the entry of Syrian refugees. Previously, only concerns over state sovereignty have been invoked.
Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi Monday strongly criticized Lebanon’s decision, calling it “invalid under the law,” in remarks made to the LBCI television channel. He added, however, that it was ““an internal Lebanese affair” and that Syria would not interfere with the new policy.
The committee also decided to make “contacts” with the appropriate authorities to establish refugee camps in Syria or in the no-man’s land along the border, and it is looking for international backers to help legitimize the massive endeavor.
Khairunissa Dhala, a Refugee Researcher at Amnesty International, voiced strong concern about the Lebanese government’s plan.
“There is an ongoing conflict in Syria – camps in Syria would expose civilians to risks of violence that they are fleeing from,” she told The Daily Star.
At a UNHCR registration center in Jnah, weary Syrians queuing up to apply for refugee status expressed concern about their uncertain future and lamented the Lebanese government’s resolve to curb the number of displaced Syrians in the country.
Syrians said that upon registering, members of the UNHCR had told them that returning to Syria would jeopardize their refugee status.
“Some people have real reasons to go to Syria,” said Abdel-Aziz.
“My wife’s mom goes back to Syria once a month to visit her sons, who are on death row,” he explained.
Others expressed concern about the cooperation, revealed last week, between the UNHCR and the Lebanese authorities, which are eager to obtain information on Syrian refugees. The parties are currently in talks about sharing refugees’ biometric information, including iris scans.
A confidentiality agreement between the UNHCR and the Lebanese government “now rests in the prime minister’s office,” according to a statement from UNHCR.
The Lebanese government says it has the legal right to information collected on its lands.
“Any country in the world has ownership of data being collected on its territories, it’s the same with Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. ... It’s only logical for the Lebanese government to have data,” said Hala al-Helou, an adviser to the social affairs minister.
Since November, the UNHCR has required iris scans for Syrians over the age of 3 who want to register as refugees. The technology, the U.N. contends, reduces fraud and helps ensure that individuals are not registering multiple times under false names.
The U.N. refugee agency purchased iris scanning equipment from a company called IrisGuard, which counts Richard Dearlove, former head of the British spy agency MI6, among its advisory board members. Frances Townsend, who served as the Homeland Security adviser to former U.S. President George Bush, also sits on the company’s advisory board.
Although many Syrian refugees insisted that they had nothing to hide and would be comfortable with the iris scan, others were nervous about the prospect of their biometric data being shared with the Lebanese authorities.
“They’ll take that information and give it to the Syrian government,” said Syrian refugee Yassan, 29. “I won’t allow them to take a scan [of my iris]. I’ll go register somewhere else.”
Nour, a young Syrian woman with two children in tow, said she would rather go without humanitarian aid than submit to an iris scan that could be shared with the Lebanese authorities.
“If they ask for this eye scan, we won’t accept,” she said.
Anna Crowe, a legal officer at the organization Privacy International, said that there were concerns about the UNHCR sharing the refugees’ biometric data.
“Refugees are a particularly vulnerable population, and if any of the database is insecure, if any of that info ends up in the wrong hands, it’s very obviously putting people at risk,” Crowe said.
“While they are in the process of developing a policy, the UNHCR doesn’t currently have a public policy on data protection. They have their own internal policies, but there’s no way to know exactly what agreements they’re reaching with governments or how they deal with the data they have,” she said.