Forced Departure: How Lebanon Evades the International Principle of Non-Refoulement
As the security situation worsened in Syria, Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security (hereafter, “General Security”) declared its commitment to the principle of non-refoulement and stopped handing over Syrian nationals to Syrian authorities. The General Security, however, developed a practice of legally deporting them by issuing deportation orders and informing them that they must leave Lebanon. Such measures seem to circumvent the principle of non-refoulement by placing the Syrian refugees in a vulnerable position that would drive them to leave Lebanon whenever possible.
In the past, the General Security had used prolonged arbitrary detention as a means to coerce refugees to “agree” to be returned to their home country. Today, it is using the method of refusing to grant residence permits to a number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This is meant to pressure them into leaving Lebanon for another country of asylum or returning to Syria, despite the violence and the threats they might be exposed to in the latter case. Much ink has been spilt on the practice of prolonged arbitrary detention of refugees, especially after the increase in the number of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. After a brief overview of this practice, this article examines the more recent mechanism of denying residency permits to Syrian refugees.
Arbitrary Detention: A Means of Coercing Refugees to Leave Lebanon
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the General Security refrained from directly deporting refugees as a result of rising criticism against this practice, which violates the international principle of non-refoulement. Instead, the General Security started detaining refugees –sometimes hundreds of them– for long periods of time, without any legal grounds. This was meant to pressure the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) into quickly resettling them in a third country, or to pressure the refugees themselves to agree to leave Lebanon. In the latter case, their departure from Lebanon would then be portrayed as a “voluntary” return, rather than refoulement.
This policy disregards not only the danger to the lives of refugees if they return to their home country, but also the length and slowness of the resettlement process. The Lebanese judiciary and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have denounced this practice of prolonged detention, which violates Lebanon’s Constitution and laws, in addition to international treaties and principles. Indeed, depriving individuals of their freedom for an undetermined period of time, with neither legal grounds nor judicial oversight, constitutes a form of torture, both physical and psychological. Despite numerous judicial rulings prohibiting the deportation of refugees and requiring the General Security to release them, this practice has persisted to date, although to a lesser extent. It was never applied to Syrian refugees, however, as a result of consensus among Lebanon’s political factions not to deport them to their home country.
Suspending the Deportation of Syrian Nationals: A Political Decision
It is not clear at which point in time the General Security stopped handing over Syrian nationals to Syrian authorities. However, the political and media debate resulting from two separate incidents -in which Syrian nationals were deported- publicly revealed this adopted policy.
The first of those incidents took place in May 2011, when Lebanese authorities handed over three injured ٍSyrian army soldiers from the regular Syrian army, in addition to the body of a fourth, to Syrian authorities. The four soldiers had crossed the border into Lebanon under circumstances that remain unclear. Some claimed that they had refused to carry out orders to open fire on Syrian civilians in the Syrian town of Talkalakh, and were shot by the Syrian army while fleeing. The Lebanese army, on the other hand, declared that they had entered Lebanese soil seeking shelter from gunfire during clashes between the Syrian army and armed fighters. It stated that they were handed over to Syrian authorities upon their own request, and after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had verified their wish to return to Syria.
The second incident which occurred in August 2012, was the one that led to the full crystallization of a political decision not to hand over Syrian nationals to their country’s authorities. At the time, the General Security deported 14 Syrians to the Lebanese-Syrian border and handed them over to Syrian authorities. Several political actors, donor countries (such as the United States and the European Union) and human rights groups denounced the move. At least four of the deportees had told the General Security that they feared for their life and freedom if they were to return to Syria but they were not able to meet with the UNHCR. At the time, the General Security had reiterated its commitment not to deport those who might be exposed to danger in their own country, and justified these deportations with pending judicial and security cases. Nevertheless, the decision by Lebanese authorities to suspend the deportation of all Syrian nationals was reached as a direct result of this incident.
Legal Deportation: The Mechanism of Ordering Departure from Lebanon
The General Security ostensibly adhered to the politically mandated decision not to hand over Syrian nationals to their country’s authorities. Given the growing number of Syrian refugees and the inability to resettle them in a third country, it also sped up the process of interrogating those arrested, and started releasing them after only a few days in detention. It however continued to issue decisions to expel them from Lebanese soil. Refugees released after their arrest would be informed that they must leave Lebanon within a certain period of time (usually ranging between one day and two weeks), and that they would not be allowed to return. These deportation orders are issued against any Syrian arrested in connection with a criminal case, regardless of the nature of the alleged crime, the evidence against the accused, or the potential outcome of a trial.
Such decisions affect the situation of Syrian refugees in two ways:
First, this confers an illegal status upon them. Staying in Lebanon after their residency permit has expired and refusing to submit to the deportation decision, constitutes an offense under the Lebanese Penal Code. It exposes them to legal prosecution and sentences of up to six months in prison. From this perspective and under such a practice, the refugees’ exercise of their right to protection from refoulement becomes a criminal offense.
Second, this deprives them of the rights enjoyed by legal residents in Lebanon. Such rights include enrollment in public schools, opening a bank account, acquiring lawful employment, and with the registration of marriages and births that occurred in Lebanon (which could deprive Syrian children of obtaining proof of their nationality), in addition to their freedom of movement without fear of arrest or legal prosecution. Refugees also become less likely to turn to the Lebanese state and its security agencies, or seek the latter’s protection if they fall victim to any crime. As such, they are not only rendered outlaws, but outside the protection of the law.
To justify the contradiction between the official position it has adopted and its own practice, the General Security argues that “refoulement would mean handing them over directly to Syrian security services”. “Asking them to leave”, on the other hand, “means that they would leave through the Lebanese-Syrian border in a normal way”. This justification is at odds with Lebanese law, which states that deportation orders may be executed voluntary (i.e., when foreigners leave Lebanon by their own means). Moreover, as noted above, the refusal to voluntarily abide by the decision to deport, (i.e., when foreigners do not leave Lebanon within the mandated time frame), subjects those who do not leave to legal prosecution.
Such a practice reveals the lack of awareness of Lebanese authorities, and in particular the General Security, of the correlation between the principle of non-refoulement and the obligation to grant refugees legal residency in their country of asylum. When the residency of refugees in the country of asylum becomes a crime in itself, their return to their country of origin would amount to refoulement. Based on international standards, one of the most important elements in assessing the “voluntariness” of returns is the legal status of refugees in the country of asylum. The practice of denying Syrian refugees the right to legal residency in Lebanon, akin to prolonged arbitrary detention, as is the case with prolonged arbitrary detention, amounts to “de facto refoulement”.
Deportation Under the Guise of Encouraging Departure: A Policy of the State or of Security Agencies?
The practices of the General Security outlined above clearly suggest a policy aimed at reducing the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In fact, its persistence may partly explain the ambiguous tenet of Lebanon’s official policy regarding Syrian refugees, which calls for encouraging them to leave Lebanon by all possible means. What methods of encouragement is the government referring to? If turning refugees into outlaws bereft of legal protection in order to drive them out of Lebanon is one such method, then the General Directorate practice discussed in this article is the reflection of a government policy rather than that of a particular security agency.
Either way, this practice violates international norms. It places Lebanon’s Syrian refugees in a vulnerable position and renders their status illegal. In most cases, it also keeps them out of sight of the security services and beyond their supervision. It is much less likely to lead them to return to Syria, which they fear, or to leave to any other country. Indeed, their chances of finding asylum in another country are often close to nil. The Syrian embassy in Lebanon rarely issues new passports or renews old ones, as it often requires applicants to return to Syria to obtain the approval of Syrian intelligence and security services. With most European countries having closed off their borders to Syrian refugees, the latter are left with the option of getting there by sea aboard a smuggler’s ship, and thereby facing all the dangers that such a trip entails.
 See: Rot Here or Die There: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch, 2007; also, Taking Refuge in Arbitrary Detention: A Policy Above the Law, Frontiers Ruwad Association, 2010.
 See: Sarah Wansa’s, “International Denunciation of Lebanon’s Arbitrary Detention Practice”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 7, February 2013; also, see: Taking Refuge in Arbitrary Detention, (2010).
 See: Youssef Diab’s, Asharq Al-Awsat, May 18, 2011.
 Statement issued by the Lebanese Army, May 20, 2011.
 See: Al-Hayat, August 2, 2012.
 Press Release by the US Embassy in Beirut, August 2, 2012.
 Statement of the European Union Spokesperson on Expulsions by the Lebanese authorities of Syrian Nationals to Syria, August 4, 2012.
 Article 89 of the Lebanese Penal Code, and Article 34 of the Law on Entry, Stay and Exit of July 10, 1962.
 See: Thaer Ghandour, Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed, May 5, 2014.
 Article 17 of the Law on Entry, Stay and Exit of July 10, 1962.
 UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Handbook - Voluntary Repatriation: International Protection, paras. 2-3, January 1996. Decision by the Lebanese Council of Ministers, October 23, 2014 (Policy Paper on Syrian Refugees).