On 18 January, the United Nations Human Rights Council’ Working Group on Universal Periodic Review will discuss Lebanon’s record on human rights. The process is such that the government of Lebanon will update the HRC on the progress of implementation of recommendations from the previous report and respond to submissions from civil society organisations and other states. Among various issues addressed in the national report[1] by the Lebanese government, there is a section dedicated to the rights of Syrian refugees in the country. In addition to listing different administrative decisions upon which the Lebanese state bases its policies towards Syrian refugees, these three paragraphs depict the view of Lebanese authorities regarding the situation of Syrian refugees in the country:

“Ensuring the living conditions of displaced Syrians

203. With the arrival of displaced Syrians in such large numbers as to make Lebanon the top country in the world for number of displaced persons with respect to population size, the Lebanese State has been cooperating continuously with donors and international organizations to implement the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, the 2017–2020 phase of which is currently under way. The Plan aims to meet the growing humanitarian needs of displaced Syrians and the developmental needs of host communities, with a special focus on the most vulnerable groups.

204. The Ministry of Education and Higher Education has launched its “Reaching All Children with Education” programme. The two-phase initiative aims to provide displaced Syrians with free educational services, with no requirement for specific documentation, and to allow them to apply for official middle and secondary school certificates, on an equal footing with Lebanese students. The pressure on the absorption capacity of State-run schools has led the Ministry of Education and Higher Education to adopt double-shift teaching which has led to a gradual increase in the number of displaced Syrians who benefit from educational services: 210,000 in 2019 as compared with 30,000 in 2012.

205. Lebanon is constantly expressing its concerns over the risk of a decline in funding for programmes run by international organizations to uphold living conditions for displaced Syrians. The State continues to cooperate with the international community to find lasting solutions to the Syrian displacement crisis and to facilitate the gradual return of displaced persons to safe areas in their own country.”

The reality of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is decisively different that the one described in these three dry paragraphs. Their treatment in Lebanon amounts to a systemic and drastic failure to uphold their basic human rights and dignity. We tried to sum up the main issues in this analysis.

Normalization of attacks

In the evening of the 27 December 2020, a group of Lebanese men from Al-Miniyeh, a town some 100 kilometres north of Beirut, approached the Bhanine camp housing Syrian refugees, cut off the electrical cables supplying the camp, started shooting in the air, and proceeded to burn the entire camp. Terrified, some 300 Syrians, with more than 50 children among them, fled to save their lives, their meagre possessions disappearing in the fire together with the tents which housed them since they fled the horror of Syria. As a result, a number of them suffered burn injuries, all of them were left with nothing, losing their makeshift homes and all the possessions in the fire.  The incident followed a quarrel between a Lebanese family and some of the refugees from the camp, but the drastic and violent escalation by the locals, which burned the camp to the ground, shocked the world and sparked a widespread reaction among the Lebanese[2] and Syrians and on social media.

While the violent nature of the incident attracted attention of global media, the incident in Al-Miniyeh, unfortunately, did not come as a surprise to any serious observer of the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Worryingly, this can hardly be seen as an isolated case, an extraordinary act of a bunch of locals driven by racism towards the refugees. Rather, it must be placed in the general context of the dire situation facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The burning down of Bhanine camp followed other recent incidents[3] which have illustrated how the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has deteriorate to dangerous levels, where after systemic dehumanization in the media and political discourse, any altercation can now be used for targeting of the Syrians as a group, and a collective punishment exerted in most violent of ways without any real consequences.

Syrian refugees are often used as a political card by politicians, to make them seem responsible for the deteriorating situation that the country is going through, in which both refugees and Lebanese are suffering. As Lebanon continues to suffer from a severe economic crisis, which was worsened by the COVID19  and the repercussions of the disastrous Beirut Port explosion, Syrian refugees are often scapegoated as a key reason for the government’s inability to deal with the mounting crisis. Such dehumanizing discourse targeting Syrian refugees is best illustrated by statements such as that of the president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, who has on more than one occasion compared the presence of Syrian refugees to the pandemic itself. And this is possibly the mildest of such language which constantly deepens the already rampant dehumanisation of Syrian refugees, painting them as a threat to the Lebanese people, which ultimately manifests itself discriminatory policies or in real violence witnessed in Al-Miniyah.

The Syrian association for Citizens’ Dignity has repeatedly pointed to the dire circumstances of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, most recently in a statement[4] joined by 30 other Lebanese, Syrian and international organisations, and has documented a number of discriminatory measures faced by refugees as part of Lebanon’s response to the pandemic in a report issued in May of last year under the title “Impact of Covid-19 on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon”[5].

This report in a way foresaw the shocking scenes from Al-Miniyah as we warned “the Syrian refugees will continue to be one of the most prominent pressure points used in the political, sectarian and economic discourse as part of the problem. While the government security forces are bound to be focusing on the deteriorating security situation as a result of the increasing protests, the pressure on the Syrians is bound to increase. As a result, we will likely witness more incidents and violations against the Syrians in Lebanon, beyond the current trend of expulsions, harassment and sectarianist abuse directed at them, possibly leading to direct attacks against the Syrian refugee camps and more widespread violence, which could threaten thousands of lives.”

Discrimination in COVID-19 response

The signs were obvious as the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon especially deteriorated with the outbreak of Corona pandemic. The measures enacted to contain the spread of the virus were in many cases used to target the refugees directly, as 21 municipalities imposed discriminatory restrictions against the Syrian refugees.[6] Bans on movement and gathering were in some areas imposed on Syrians before they were extended to the Lebanese, and most municipalities designated only one person to go out to buy goods to supply the needs of all camp residents.

Non-governmental organizations working in the medical field announced that the number of beneficiaries decreased by 80% due to restrictions and barriers imposed on them.[7] In practical terms, the main local powerful figures asserted full control over Syrian lives and their affairs. Clans, political party officials and other power groups took place of the official institutions tasked with combating the virus, which increased discrimination of the refugees based on sectarianism and political positions.[8]

Human Rights Watch stated in its report entitled “Refugees at Risk in Covid-19 Response”, that a number of discriminatory policies, practices and measures against Syrian refugees have been monitored by some municipalities. “At least 18 municipalities in the Bekaa Valley – where a third of the Syrian refugees live in Lebanon – imposed restrictions other than curfews that targeted only refugee groups”[9].

The report revealed that the severe restrictions imposed by the measures targeted the refugees specifically, raising fears about their systemic rather than individual or accidental nature, with “a number of municipalities imposing no less than 330 curfews on Syrians starting from January 2020”.

The discriminatory measures targeting Syrian refugees came amidst an already dire state for the vast majority of Syrian refugees. Most Syrians in Lebanon do not have a legal residency document (74% at the end of 2018)[10] and less than 1%[11] have a work permit (and those who do are limited to jobs in agriculture, construction and environment/cleaning sectors only, according to the Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour), as most Syrian refugees cannot obtain residency due to the high cost of the permit. With the spread of the pandemic and the increased tension in the security situation in Lebanon as a result of the recent events, the legal status has become more important than ever for the refugees. Visiting hospitals, following up with aid organizations, and the need to move around from one place to another makes the need for such documents even higher than before. However, the crisis has made the possibility of attaining the legal status in the country much more difficult. Most refugees fear to report to official institutions, including hospitals, for fear of detention or deportation. This is despite the fact that the Lebanese government issued a decision to stop the deportations of people with health conditions, but the decree was not practically implemented on the ground, as several Syrian families were expelled as a result of going to pharmacies to buy simple medicines such as pain relievers.[12]

According to a study by Access Center for Human Rights, at least nine camps in different towns in the Bekaa region have been raided by various security agencies on an almost daily basis without any legal justification, as their registration papers are searched with UNHCR and legal residence papers[13]. Siham, a displaced person from Damascus countryside: “We are being severely restricted by some of the locals who are close to our camp. They have prevented us from leaving the camp to purchase even the basic stuff. If things continue like this, we have no choice but to return to Syria despite what we know about Syria.”[14]Samia, from the Daraa countryside, now in Arsal: “We are afraid to move or visit hospitals, we don’t know what will happen. I fear for my children and there is nothing I can do, I feel helpless.”

Nothing illustrates as starkly the desperation brought upon the Syrian refugees in Lebanon by the increasing pressure and dehumanization they face than the increase in cases of self-immolation. The latest such case was recorded in November 2020 when set himself on fire[15] in front of the UNHCR office in Bir Hassan area of Beirut. The reason: he could not afford the medical treatment for his sick daughter.

Danger of large-scale refoulment

On 19th November 2020, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that refusal to perform military service in Syria gives entitlement to recognition as refugee. This decision was made on the basis that those who refuse to perform military service under the Syrian regime may be perceived as opposing the regime, and hence could face fear of persecution upon their return. However, there is a worrying increase in incidents of the Lebanese general security handing over to their Syrian counterparts men who defected from the Syrian army and fled to Lebanon, including the most recent case of Hussein Jumaa who was, according to several reports[16], arrested in January 2021 in Baalbek and handed over to Assad’s security. According to Al-Modon newspaper, the Lebanese authorities have done such things before despite being aware of the situation of the men and being informed by their families that their return puts them in grave danger. [17] Director of the “Access Center for Human Rights”, Muhammad Hassan, told Al-Modon: “We are very concerned about the forced deportation operations of some security agencies. We learned from private sources that the handover operations are coordinated through the Syrian embassy in Beirut, particularly to hand over to Syria refugees opposed to the regime.” The Lebanese authorities denied that they handed over military defects, but insisted that all Syrians who enter Lebanon in illegal ways will be returned back to Syria as per the Higher Defense Council’s decision in April 2019, which violates the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in article 3 “1. No State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.[18]”  According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, whose core principle is non-refoulment, “a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”[19] Lebanon is in breach of all these conventions.

The discriminatory measures, dehumanization and refusal to allow a legal status which would enable Syrian refugees to have any sort of dignified existence in Lebanon seem to be part of a concerted effort to pressure Syrian refugees into an unsafe return to Syrian. On 15 July 2020, a decision was issued regarding the return of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon under the title “General Policy for the Return of Displaced Persons,” which aims to expedite the return of all displaced Syrians from Lebanon, regardless of any political process. The paper came as a result of consultations and discussions within the Lebanese government and puts Syrian refugees in the situation where they essentially face a choice between returning to areas under control of the regime which they fled in the first place, or to try and flee to a third country. The paper is seen by most human rights organisations as a clear evidence of the Lebanese government’s overriding of all international treaties relating to the rights of the displaced people and the agreements which have so far governed the assistance to the Syrian refugees specifically. According to this policy, the Lebanese government considers that “the security situation in Syria has improved, as most of Syria has become safe”[20], which was repeated in the recent “conference on return” organised by Russia in Damascus that was boycotted by the EU and most other countries. This assessment of the security situation in Syria is patently inaccurate[21] and results in a return plan for Syrian refugees which violates[22] international conventions and treaties that protect refugees from forced return and criminalize any attempts to force refugees to return to the country they fled, while the perpetrator is still in power. Very importantly, this policy, in addition to being a real threat to the lives of the displaced if they were forced to return, contributes to the encouragement and rise of anti-refugee rhetoric, which is accompanied by an increase in attacks such as the one in Al-Miniyah.

All of the above refers clearly to a systematic policy and continuous procedures that inevitably lead to the dehumanization of the target group – who are the refugees here – and make them directly in the position of the target and their rights are permissible without concern for the consequences or awareness of violations that ignore most of basic human rights.

As the Lebanon’s record on human rights is discussed on 18 January at the Human Rights Council, the international community must act to make it clear to the government of Lebanon that it must take decisive steps to address the dire human rights situation of Syrian refugees in the country. The dangerous policies and discriminatory measures need to be reversed and brought into line with international obligations of Lebanon and international mechanisms governing the rights of refugees. The government must act to stop the deteriorating dehumanization of Syrian refugees in the political and public discourse and decisively investigate, prosecute incidents of violence targeting Syrian refugees and enact a set of deterrent measures which will curtail dehumanization and attacks on dignity of Syrian refugees.

The international community and the United Nations agencies must realize the seriousness of the situation facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon and demonstrate their commitment to the principles of refugee protection. Any assistance pledged to Lebanon must be conditional on full respect for international law and the rights of refugees under the authority of the Government of Lebanon, and for the government to take its role in building civil peace and preserving the dignity of the displaced until the appropriate conditions for a dignified, safe and voluntary return are available for them under real international supervision.

 * Cover photo: A picture from the Al-Miniyah camp for Syrian refugees in Lebanon after its burning. [Ibrahim Chalhoub/AFP]


[1] National report submitted in accordance with paragraph 15 (a) of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 5/1, Lebanese Republic

[2] https://www.facebook.com/mdheiby/posts/10164524971500075

[3] Lebanon ritor sheds light on precarious situation of Syrian refugees, 25 November 2020, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/lebanon-riot-shines-light-on-precarious-situation-of-syrian-refugees-41787 Bcharri town incident, https://enabbaladi.net/archives/434086 [in Arabic]

[4] UNHCR must protect Syrian refugees in Lebanon from refoulment, 8 January 2021 https://www.achrights.org/2021/01/08/11760/?fbclid=IwAR1rG3Mi6HnlG440EsbVPdgao5yh67SQxbPJEL4dd_HDNTqQb9n2XpGxJJA

[5] Impact of Covid-19 on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 15 May 2020, https://syacd.org/impact-of-covid-19-on-syrian-refugees-in-lebanon/

[6] Lebanon: Refugees at Risk in COVID-19 Response, Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/02/lebanon-refugees-risk-covid-19-response

[7] Lebanon: Investigating the situation of Syrian refugees under COVID-19 pandemic, Access Center for Human Rights, April 2020: https://bit.ly/2XKtZR3

[8] Lebanon: Refugees at Risk in COVID-19 Response, Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/02/lebanon-refugees-risk-covid-19-response

[9] https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/02/lebanon-refugees-risk-covid-19-response Lebanon: Refugees at Risk in Covid-19 Response, Discrimination Risks Harming Syrians, Lebanese Alike

[10] 101 Facts & Figures on the Syrian Refugee Crisis Volume II Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, pp.52: https://bit.ly/3cCOR2h

[11] ibid.

[12] Buying Panadol causes a municipal investigation and expulsion of a family: Syrian refugees are trapped between Corona and destitution [in Arabic], The Legal Agenda, 8 April 2020: https://www.legal-agenda.com/article.php?id=6663

[13] Lebanon: Investigating the situation of Syrian refugees under COVID-19 pandemic, Access Center for Human Rights, April 2020: https://bit.ly/2XKtZR3

[14] From the interviews conducted by SACD with Syrian refugees in Lebanon

[15] Syrian refugee sets himself on fire in front of UNHCR office in Beirut, InfoMigrants, Nov 2020 https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/28365/syrian-refugee-sets-himself-on-fire-in-front-of-unhcr-office-in-beirut

[16] Lebanese Army hands over a Syrian refugee to the regime, Voice of Damascus, 7 January 2021, https://damascusv.com/archives/33929

[17] https://www.almodon.com/arabworld/2019/6/20/لبنان-يرحل-سوريين-منشقين-بالتنسيق-مع-السفارة-السورية

[18] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx

[19] The 1951 Refugee Convention, UNHCR: https://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html

[20] Previous source

[21] At least 1882 cases of arbitrary arrest documented in Syria in 2020, SNHR, https://sn4hr.org/blog/2021/01/02/55793/

[22] Position of SACD on return conference organised by Russian Ministry of Defence in Damascus in November 2020 https://syacd.org/position-of-the-syrian-association-for-citizens-dignity-about-the-conference-that-the-russian-ministry-of-defence-is-organizing-on-refugee-return-in-damascus-on-the-11th-of-november/