O
On January 8, 2016, Lebanon, in an unprecedented move, returned “at least 200—and perhaps more than 400—Syrians” to their war-torn country without first assessing their individual risk of persecution. Syrian travelers arrived at Beirut International Airport with hopes of reaching Turkey as their final destination, but Turkey’s new visa regulations prevented them from boarding the plane. While the Turkish government continues to implement its “open door policy” to Syrians entering its borders by land, it reversed its six-year waiver visa agreement for Syrian nationals arriving in the country by air and sea from third countries. According to Human Rights Watch, several of the Syrians deported from Lebanon verbally expressed fear of returning to their home country. Lebanon has neither ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Article 33 of the Convention expressly prohibits the Contracting States from “expel[ing] or return[ing] (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” While refugee status determination within the meaning of Article 1 of the Convention is normally carried out on individual basis, when dire situations, such as internal conflicts, result in large influxes of people fleeing their country, the Convention regards each member of that population as a prima facie refugee. The rationale behind this procedure, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Handbook, is that “[i]n such situations the need to provide assistance is often extremely urgent and it may not be possible for purely practical reasons to carry out an individual determination of refugee status.” Currently, all Syrians entering Lebanon can register with UNHCR through the prima facie registration process. And because of their refugee statute, they are fully entitled to enjoy the rights afforded by the Convention, including the principle of non-refoulement. One may argue that Lebanon, because of its non-signatory status, is not bound by the Refugee Convention, and therefore, the forcible return of Syrians was not a violation of its international obligations. But according to UNHCR’s 2013 Report on Legal Status of Individuals Feeling Syria, Lebanon “officially states that it is bound by the non-refoulement principle.” Additionally, the international community widely recognizes the principle as a norm of international law, irrespective of treaty ratifications and declarations. The Executive Committee of UNHCR’s Note on Non-refoulement underscores this normative value. The Committee states that “[b]ecause of its wide acceptance at universal level, [the principle] is being increasingly considered in jurisprudence and in the work of jurists as a generally recognized principle of international law.” Furthermore, as a State Party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Lebanon is bound by Article 3, under which “no State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) 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.” Such risk determination requires authorities to “take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.” Given the current human rights situation that has emerged from the civil war in Syria, there is a strong case against the deportation of the Syrian travelers who arrive in Lebanon. In response to the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the government has cooperated with UNHCR by maintaining its open door policy and developing an unofficial cooperation framework with the agency. The government also continues to provide funding and other humanitarian assistance, including its structural support to UNHCR’s function of registering Syrian refugees. While the international community commends the government’s cooperation, there is still no concrete legal protection for refugees in Lebanon. Article 32 of the Lebanese Law of Entry and Exit of 1962 permits the arrest and deportation of foreign nationals who enter the country illegally. According to a report by ALEF-Act for Human Rights, the only official protection for Syrian refugees from arrest and subsequent deportation deported is Lebanon’s recognition of refugees’ entry papers stamped by the UNHCR and the Lebanese General Security. The travelers who were en route to Turkey had not obtained these papers and were thus subject to deportation under that law. As of February 2016, UNHCR has registered 1,067,785 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Notwithstanding the commendable efforts of the country to welcome and provide safety for Syrian refugees, rights groups believe the travelers attempting to pass through its borders should have protection from deportation. Lebanon’s further adherence to the vital principle of non-refoulement will undoubtedly bolster its formidable progress in supporting Syrian refugees.