Syrians in Lebanon fear deportation, see Europe as beacon

Lebanon says it can no longer afford 1 million Syrian refugees on its soil because of its economic meltdown. The government plans on sending back 15,000 refugees per month, but many say they’d rather try to travel to Europe because Syria’s economy is in tatters.

Bilal Hussein/AP
Syrian children play soccer near their tented homes at a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, July 7, 2022. The Lebanese government’s plan to start deporting Syrian refugees has sent waves of concern through vulnerable refugee communities.

Sitting outside her tent in a camp in eastern Lebanon, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee contemplated the sunset and her worsening options.

Umm Jawad fled to Lebanon in 2011 to escape a Syrian government siege of her hometown of Homs. She managed to survive over the past decade, despite Lebanon’s devastating economic meltdown and souring attitudes toward Syrian refugees.

But now Lebanon wants to send her and a million other refugees back to Syria, claiming that much of the war-shattered country is safe. She is terrified. Life in Lebanon is difficult, but she fears returning to Syria could be fatal.

She’s considering a risky escape to Europe by sea with her husband and their children, ages 11 and six. There, she could complete her accounting degree, put the children back in school, and secure better health care.

“They [the Europeans] live a better quality of life,” said Umm Jawad, who asked to be identified by her nickname, which means “mother of Jawad” in reference to her older son’s first name, to speak freely about her family and plans. “But here, my children, husband, and I live in a tent.”

Lebanon’s economic meltdown – one of the worst in modern history – has pushed a growing number of Lebanese and Syrians to attempt the perilous journey by sea to Europe.

The Lebanese government’s recently announced plan to deport 15,000 refugees per month to Syria appears set to push more people to make that journey, at a time when Europe is struggling with millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the months-long war in their country.

The Lebanese Army and other security agencies report foiled migration attempts off the coast of the northern coasts on a weekly basis. At least seven migrants drowned following a confrontation between a boat of Lebanese and Syrian migrants and the Lebanese Army in April.

“The Lebanese are not happy with their life here and are trying to leave, so what does that mean for Syrians?” said Umm Jawad.

“May God help both the Lebanese and Syrians out of this crisis.”

Umm Jawad lives in a Syrian refugee camp near Lebanon’s eastern border crossing with Syria. On a recent day, children played soccer in the camp’s labyrinth of alleys, while some residents bartered with a street vendor who passed by with his cart carrying produce. One man set up a makeshift barbershop inside a tent.

Life in the camp has been getting harder. Donor fatigue, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Lebanon’s crippling economic crisis have forced more refugees to go into debt to afford food, medicine, and rent.

Lebanon, a country of 5 million people, says it can no longer afford to host more than a million Syrian refugees, and is adamant to start deporting them within months, despite opposition from the United Nations and rights groups.

The Lebanese authorities have supported forced refugee returns for years but had not come up with a comprehensive plan until recently. In justifying such measures, they say Syrian officials have assured them there are now many safe areas refugees can return to.

In a Lebanese government document obtained by The Associated Press, Damascus assured Beirut in April that returnees would be able to secure identification cards, birth certificates, social services, temporary housing, and a viable infrastructure. Syrian officials also wrote that returnees would benefit from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s pardons of political opponents and military draft evaders.

In reality, the Assad government has struggled to rebuild areas it has reclaimed through devastating sieges and air raids, and Syria’s economy, like that of Lebanon, is in tatters. Western-led sanctions on Damascus following the government’s brutal crackdown on political opposition in 2011 have further exacerbated the economic downturn.

Many Syrian refugees fear for their safety if forced to return, including the oppressive omnipresence of their country’s notorious security services.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of Syrian refugees facing detention, torture, and a host of human rights violations upon their return, even with security clearances from the Syrian government, said Lama Fakih, the Middle East and North Africa director at the watchdog group.

Umm Jawad worries her husband could be forced to return to the military. “You have check points every few hundred meters, between every neighborhood, and crime is rampant. You just can’t feel safe even in your own home,” she said.

Hassan Al-Mohammed, who works in the fields of Lebanon’s lush Bekaa Valley, along with several of his 12 children, said he dreams of going home, but that now is not the time. He said his hometown southwest of the city of Aleppo is still a frontline. “Should I flee an economic crisis just to have my family slaughtered?” he said, sitting in his tent.

At the same time, many Lebanese feel that sending the Syrians home would ease the economic crisis in Lebanon, where 3 out of 4 people now live in poverty.

Tensions between Lebanese and Syrians are increasingly palpable.

Mr. Mohammed says bakeries would sometimes prioritize Lebanese nationals for their bundle of bread and make Syrians and non-Lebanese wait for hours. He is frustrated by claims that refugees have been benefitting economically at the expense of Lebanese. “They reduced aid, so we’re working to eat. The money we make is to buy bread,” he said.

Lebanese ministers in recent months have proposed that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees redirect refugee aid to Syria, as a way of improving the situation there and encouraging returns.

But those calls have so far fallen on deaf ears. The U.N. refugee agency, along with Europe, the United States, and several rights groups, say that Syria simply isn’t safe yet.

Lebanese officials expressed their frustration.

The U.N.’s refusal to redirect aid deters refugees from returning, Issam Charafeddine, the Cabinet minister dealing with refugee issues, said in an interview earlier this month. He also said reports of an imminent start of deportations amount to an unfounded “fear campaign.”

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, a member of the Lebanese government’s refugee returns committee, told reporters last week that “it seems the international community doesn’t want the Syrians to return to their country.”

The story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Syrians in Lebanon fear deportation, see Europe as beacon
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today