Lebanon tells Palestinian-Syrians it is safe to go back to Syria

Lebanon has begun deporting or refusing entry to Palestinian-Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon. But the door seems to remain open to Syrian nationals.

By , Contributor

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    Residents walk as they receive aid at the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, south of Damascus, Syria, May 20, 2014.
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Lebanon is tightening restrictions for Palestinians fleeing there from Syria after the Lebanese interior ministry declared that improving conditions justify a return to pre-war entry regulations.

“As the situation in Syria is improving, especially in Yarmouk, the exceptional circumstances cited as their reason for entry are no longer relevant," a source from the Interior Ministry told The Daily Star, referring to a Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus that was under siege for months, causing widespread starvation. "The red alert has been switched to green.”

Palestinian-Syrians have become refugees twice over as a result of the Syrian war. They face greater hurdles than Syrian nationals as they try to flee to neighboring countries with longstanding Palestinian populations of their own that governments do not want to see grow. Some 50,000 Palestinian-Syrians are in Lebanon, on top of a pre-war Palestinian population of 455,000.

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Lebanon previously won praise from the United Nations for maintaining an open-border policy as other states sought to stymie the flow of refugees. Palestinian-Syrians were able to purchase a three-month residency permit at the border, with the opportunity to renew for up to a year for free. After the one-year mark, they could pay $200 to extend their residencies for another year. 

But in recent weeks a spate of deportations and entry refusals at the border show that has changed. On May 3, more than 40 Palestinian-Syrians were sent back to Syria after they were caught trying to leave the country by plane with counterfeit documentation. 

Now Palestinian-Syrians have to request an entrance visa at the Lebanese embassy in Damascus, which must be approved by the Lebanese government, or hold a pre-existing residency permit in the country. The interior ministry also recently warned that Palestinian-Syrians with residency visas will be denied extensions. Twenty-four hour transit visas remain available, enabling Palestinians to travel from the border to Beirut’s airport to fly out of the country. 

Syrian nationals can obtain a six-month residency visa, paying $200 after they've been in the country for a year. All that is required is a note from the local administrator confirming their residence. 

A better existence

Before the war, Palestinians in Syria had a far better setup than their counterparts in Lebanon. The Syrian Constitution granted Palestinians almost equal rights, allowing them to live anywhere in the country and do any job.

In Lebanon, Palestinians are banned from working in the public sector and many professional fields, including law, medicine, and engineering, and must live in one of the 12 refugee camps built after Israel's founding in 1948. The Palestinians arriving from Syria face the same restrictions, and their influx has increased competition for jobs, pushed housing costs up, and fomented animosity between new arrivals and the host communities.

Earlier this month, Ahmed, a Palestinian-Syrian who arrived in Lebanon a year and a half ago, watched TV in an apartment in the refugee camp of Bourj el-Barajneh, ignoring the commemorations of the nakba the term Palestinians use to refer to Israel's founding – in a nearby camp. His parents fled to Syria from Haifa in 1948, so the nakba, or catastrophe, is part of his family's history, but his residency visa is expired. He worries that if he leaves the camp, he'll be picked up at a checkpoint and sent back to Syria. 

Ahmed is concerned enough that he turned down a much-needed job at a construction site in the nearby neighborhood of Dahiyeh, in southern Beirut. 

“I feel like I am in a prison here,” says Ahmed. “But in Syria there is only death and destruction. I can’t go back.”

Bureaucracy

Exacerbating the resource strain is the fact that Palestinian-Syrians report to the UN Welfare Relief Agency (UNRWA), created to deal with Palestinian refugees, rather than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is called upon in almost any other refugee crisis, including this one.

For example, Syrian nationals can seek medical care in Lebanese hospitals, with costs paid by UNHCR and partners, while Palestinian-Syrians have to rely largely on field clinics or foot the bills themselves, says Lana Fakih, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch based in Beirut.

Human rights groups say Lebanon's change in policy violates a UN ban on extraditing a person to a country that consistently violates human rights or where they might face the threat of torture. They also accuse Lebanon of having a double standard – regulations have remained the same for Syrian nationals, although some members of the Lebanese government, led by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, are calling for limits on the flow of all refugees. 

“The Palestinian community in Syria is extremely vulnerable. They have not only been caught up in the conflict but also been directly targeted,” says Ms. Fakih, referring to the regime siege of Yarmouk. “Other neighboring countries have been very restrictive with regard to Palestinians. In Jordan, they have been banned for over a year. Palestinians have relied on Lebanon."

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