Monday, 2 June 2014

Syrian refugees in Lebanon held hostage by the Future Movement

Syrian expatriates living in Lebanon cast their ballots in the country's presidential elections at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze east of Beirut on May 28, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Joseph Eid)
Published Monday, June 2, 2014
The Future Movement could not easily digest the presidential election scene at the Syrian embassy in Yarze. It wanted to use the Syrian refugees to pressure the regime in Damascus, instead the refugees turned into a source of political concern for the movement. This concern prompted the interior minister to issue a decision that blackmails Syrian refugees and turns them into prisoners in Lebanon.
The interior and municipalities minister, Nouhad al-Machnouk, tried yesterday in vain to lessen the effect of the shock that befell his political team upon seeing droves of Syrian voters heading to their country’s embassy in Lebanon’s Yarze last week to take part in the presidential election. 
He said they were at most six percent of the total number of Syrians in Lebanon. He threw numbers around haphazardly and could not justify the reason that prompted him to issue a decision to revoke the refugee status of any Syrian citizen who visits their country.
Machnouk wanted to proceed with the US-Saudi-European decision to block the Syrian elections. He tried to keep Syrians in Lebanon from participating in the election so he issued a decision that prevents them from holding “political gatherings.” But the scene in Yarze prompted him to raise the bar a notch. 
He gave the refugees two options, to either participate in the elections or maintain their status as refugees, claiming that it is impossible to do both. The purpose of Machnouk’s actions is to prevent Syrian refugees from being anything but supporters of the Syrian opposition .

The interior minister tried in vain to distance his decision from politics. In an interview with al-Jadeed TV channel yesterday, he said that he proposed to the Syrian government, through a Lebanese security agency, transferring polling stations to a border area between the Masnaa crossing on the Lebanese side and Jdeidet Yabous crossing on the Syrian side but the Syrian side rejected the proposal. Did Machnouk believe that Damascus would participate in a political decision of this kind? The minister used security concerns and Lebanon’s inability to keep its border permanently open to Syrian refugees to justify his decision. What is certain is that this decision turns refugees into prisoners in Lebanon based on the claim that the refugee status does not apply to anyone who can enter Syria.
The statement from the Interior Ministry announcing the new decision states: “All Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are asked to refrain from entering Syria” starting yesterday June 1 or else they would be stripped of their refugee status. The decision was sent out through the General Directorate of General Security to all the border crossing points between Lebanon and Syria. The Interior and Municipalities Ministry asked all international organizations for refugees to “assume their responsibilities and work to inform the Syrian refugees of the content of this statement, follow up on it and give it the utmost importance.”
The Interior Ministry’s justification of its decision, namely, “concern for security in Lebanon and the need to prevent any friction or provocation” between Syrian refugees and Lebanese citizens almost confirms the assertion by a number of legal experts and public figures that the decision is primarily political. 
“A refugee is not a prisoner and they are not subject to a travel ban, especially if they want to check on their family or property in Syria while waiting until the security situation allows them to return to their country or home permanently,” said former director general of General Security Jamil al-Sayyed. He argued that the decision “violates Lebanese and international law,” and that issuing it falls within the purview of the cabinet as a whole. He concluded: “This politically-motivated decision is a kind of revenge against the Syrian crowds that cast their vote in Lebanon and a way to prevent those who could not vote from exercising their right in Syria.”

The decision is illegal because it applies “mechanically and has a generalized effect,” said attorney Nizar Saghieh. He explained that any similar measure has to be applied “case by case and on the basis of an investigation.” Saghieh stated that, “International law may revoke the refugee status” of someone who moves from the host country to their native country and vice versa if investigations prove that there is no threat to the refugee when they go to their mother country. He stressed, however, that the measure should not be applied mechanically or in a general manner. As to the power of the interior minister to issue such a decision, Saghieh contends that even the cabinet does not have the power to issue a decision that violates international law on refugee protection which Lebanon is committed to implementing. He insists: “No one can take away refugee rights.”
Saghieh calls on the Lebanese government to ask the Syrian government to allow the United Nations (UN) to deliver aid to those displaced inside Syria or allow the construction of border cross points (with Lebanon) for that purpose which would diminish the flow of refugees into Lebanon. In harsh war conditions, “it is normal for Syrians to come here for economic reasons,” Saghieh said, warning that the decision of the Interior Ministry could backfire and spur refugees to stay in Lebanon in order to receive aid.
Former minister and attorney Issam Noman said, “The decision deals with a political issue, therefore it must be submitted to the cabinet to take the necessary measure.” He added that the decision is “connected to three ministries, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Social Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry, therefore one minister cannot monopolize the decision-making.” He concluded that the decision is “illegal” in addition to being “totally inappropriate at this time because it gives the impression that the Lebanese government is in fact biased against the Syrian government which is organizing a presidential election and is therefore a violation of the self-distancing policy.”
UNHCR Spokeswoman Dana Sleiman acknowledged the validity of the legal opinions contesting the decision even though UNHCR understands “the government’s fears of the problems that may ensue from politicizing the refugee issue.” She confirmed that the UN agency will inform concerned parties of the decision at the request of the Interior Ministry. Sleiman said the return of a refugee “does not automatically mean there is no fear of persecution or of war,” explaining that “some Syrian refugees return to their country for a short period to renew their IDs, or to check on old or sick members of their families, or to check on their property, or to figure out if the situation in their villages is safe enough for their return, and for a number of reasons other than the ones mentioned by the government.”
“We stress the importance of distinguishing between the people who are able to return and those who are not,” Sleiman said, emphasizing that the UNHCR “is examining each case separately to ensure the protection of all the refugees who need international protection.” Revoking refugee status “will not be done automatically in order to maintain the humanitarian situation of all refugees.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian   
The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Blog!

No comments: