BEIRUT: Three Palestinians who were deported last weekend from Lebanon back to Syria, where they had been living, are still waiting in a no-man’s land between the two countries’ borders, according to Human Rights Watch, amid claims that a discriminatory entry policy against Palestinian refugees is in place.
“I spoke with them this morning and they were still waiting,” Lama Fakih, Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Star, adding that 35 others had returned to Syria.
“They told me that the Lebanese Red Cross might be able to intervene on their behalf or that Lebanon might let them in if a third country agrees to resettle them.”
Some 49 Syrians and Palestinians previously living in Syria were arrested at Beirut airport last Saturday, suspected of possessing forged documents. About 40 were deported back to Syria the next day and are believed to be Palestinian. HRW said it was not clear what happened to the others. General Security could not immediately be reached for comment.
Fakih said it was the first deportation of refugees HRW had recorded since August 2012.
The incident comes amid reports – not the first of their kind – that the Lebanese authorities have been preventing Palestinians from entering the country from Syria.
A statement Tuesday by HRW said: “Such a policy violates the international law principle of nonrefoulement, which forbids governments from returning refugees and asylum seekers to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.”
A statement Tuesday by the Central Security Council said: “No decision has been taken to prevent the entry of [any] refugees and the borders remain open.”
However, HRW and the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) said Palestinians were being denied entry.
“UNRWA has been monitoring the situation at the crossing point at Masnaa between Lebanon and Syria and can report that no Palestinian refugees from Syria have been allowed to cross into Lebanon today,” Chris Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman said.
“It became clear at the weekend that ... new restrictions had been introduced,” he added.
“I can say that we have been in contact [with the Lebanese authorities] to discuss the issue and we have been given assurances that the restrictions are temporary. We hope they will be lifted soon.”
The allegedly discriminatory policy appears to date back to Aug. 6, 2013, when HRW criticized ambiguous new border regulations, saying they adversely affected Palestinians in Syria after about 200 were left stranded between the Syrian-Lebanese borders and forced to turn back.
“Last summer, that was when they started to put some restrictions on Palestinians entering Lebanon,” said Louise Lemari, communications officer at local non-governmental Organization Anera, which works in Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
“It’s not very new but it’s the first time that it’s making a noise. I don’t know the extent of the problem, but I know it’s been happening.”
It is not known whether the practice is part of a wider attempt to cut down on the number of refugees fleeing from Syria to Lebanon. Around 1.5 million people – 52,000 of whom are Palestinian – are already believed to have done so.
The Central Security Council Tuesday asked General Security to design a new plan to control the flow of all refugees from Syria into the country. Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas Tuesday told Voice of Lebanon radio that the country could no longer endure the influx of “socio-economic” refugees from Syria and suggested limiting the number permitted to enter.
Hala al-Helou, an adviser to the Social Affairs Ministry, clarified Derbas’ remarks, saying: “We need to have stricter criteria of who can enter, but not closing the borders.”
According to HRW’s Fakih, the only acceptable way to do this would be via an individualized screening process, a costly and time-intensive process.
“International refugee law requires that neighboring states allow individuals fleeing violence to do so,” she said.
“The Lebanese government could implement a screening process to check whether those coming in were refugees or migrants but there cannot be a policy of deporting refugees or pushing them back ... at the border.”