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Lebanon deports refugees to Syria as Arab states normalize with Assad

BEIRUT — Abu Hussein’s stomach churned with worry when the Lebanese army knocked on his door at 5 a.m. last month. He chose to believe the soldiers when they said they were coming for him to settle his papers. He chose to believe them when they said they were there on behalf of the United Nations.

But when he saw the familiar route to Syria, his home country, he felt the fear in his stomach rise to the back of his throat.

“I asked an officer, ‘Excuse me, but where are we going? Where are you taking us? He said to me: ‘We have received the order to expel you. We are handing you over to the Syrian army.’ »

The 26-year-old, currently in hiding in Syria, shared his story with The Washington Post on the condition that he be identified by nickname and his whereabouts not disclosed. Abu Hussein believes he was one of some 250 Syrians deported that day by Lebanese authorities, who in recent weeks have begun handing over refugees to their Syrian counterparts.

Once across the border, some of the men disappeared and were taken into police custody in Syria – held by authorities for past political activities or for escaping military conscription, advocacy groups say of human rights, who call for an end to what they describe as illegal evictions. Amnesty International has so far documented at least four men who were detained during their deportation.

Assad’s Arab embrace highlights divergence with US over Syria

The timing of the returns coincides with a decision by Arab states to normalize relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After a 12-year suspension, Syria was welcomed back into the Arab League this month and on Friday Assad attended a regional summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where returning refugees was a priority.

Abu Hussein is wanted by the Syrian government for working in the media as protests engulfed the country in 2011 and quickly turned into a brutal civil war. Assad refused to comply with popular demands for resignation, repressing his people with bombings, sieges, starvation and torture. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed.

Millions more have fled to neighboring countries. Abu Hussein remained in Syria with false papers until 2018 when he was discovered and then crossed the border into Lebanon.

He moved with his brother to Burj Hammoud, a neighborhood in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, securing a job and successfully applying for residency. His passport was at Lebanon’s General Directorate of Security for residency renewal when the military, along with officers from the army’s intelligence and internal security’s information branch, descended on his home. him at the end of April.

“[My brother and I] spoke to the army intelligence officer and he told us, “Don’t worry at all. We will repair your papers, and it was the United Nations who sent us to repair your papers,” Abu Hussein said. He showed officers the green slip from General Security which signified that his documents were being processed.

None of this made any difference. He was handcuffed with his brother and detained with dozens of other people, including women and children, in a convoy of four or five army vehicles. Officers continued to circulate around the Burj Hammoud and knock on Syrians’ doors, he said, eventually moving all detainees to a General Security building, where their phones were confiscated.

Lebanese soldiers beat those who resisted, he said, but the herding work was the most dehumanizing part: “They treated us like cattle.”

When he realized he was being sent back to Syria, he said, he said to a Lebanese officer, “’If you hand me over to the Syrians, I don’t know what will happen to me.’ He said to me, ‘Your government can take care of you.

An official from Lebanon’s General Security, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, told The Post that there was no exact number of deportees due to a lack of coordination from high level within the country’s security services. Asked about Abu Hussein’s account that the Lebanese forces claimed to represent the United Nations, he replied: “That’s a stupid question, and what an incredible lie.”

Abu Hussein said he and his brother spent seven days on the Syrian side of the border, in two large dormitories that separated women and children from men. Officers handing out food and drink would issue general threats, he said. “They told us, ‘You are now in Syria, we know how to treat you.'”

The Syrians conducted interrogations in the dormitories, he said, waking the men at 1 or 2 a.m. “Here, we have lost hope. We thought they were taking us to shoot us,” he said.

Instead, he said, his interrogators pressed him on details big and small — how he entered Lebanon, the name of his taxi driver, whether he had ever protested, whether he had ever fought the government. “I lied about everything,” he said. “The only real thing is that I had not taken up arms” against the government.

Eventually, Abu Hussein and his brother were sent back to their home province. It took intelligence forces two days to pick them up there, he said.

The men were prepared and had luck on their side: living on the ground floor meant that a quick escape was possible. The officers also arrived at 4 p.m., which is unusual for Syrian intelligence, which tends to favor night raids.

“They don’t have the courage to do these things anymore,” Abu Hussein said cheekily.

The men fled to another province, aided by sympathizers along the way, including soldiers. “There are a lot of people here who reject what is happening,” Abu Hussein said.

He spoke to the Post by phone as he walked around the town where he is hiding. He was silent if he encountered passers-by, and his voice turned to a whisper when he used words like “interrogation” and “army.”

“I didn’t come here with my papers, or money, or anything. I now stand in the street. If a patrol passes and stops me, I have no identity papers,” he said.

If caught, he says, he expects to be charged and tortured – “and if I survived afterwards, they would send me to military service”.

The Post could not independently confirm Abu Hussein’s account, but it aligns itself with the findings of rights groups and the accounts of other deportees in recent weeks. Leila, a Syrian mother of two, said she came out after seven days in border custody to find her husband was missing. Her voice cracked in despair as she spoke of him, an army defector, afraid of what he might endure in government custody. She spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name for security reasons.

“They told us, ‘a few hours and you’ll be back,'” she said repeatedly, returning again and again to the moment the Lebanese army knocked on their door.

“Syria is still not safe for returns,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, adding that rights groups have “constantly documented cases of refugees returning to Syria who are victims of assassinations and enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, sexual violence and a whole series of other human rights violations.

It is illegal in Lebanon to return anyone to a country where they risk being persecuted, Majzoub said, citing the “international principle of non-refoulement”.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said it had observed “an upward trend in raids taking place in Syrian communities” in Lebanon, including at least 73 in April.

“UNHCR continues to advocate strongly for respect for the principles of international law and to ensure that refugees in Lebanon are protected from refoulement,” the agency said in a statement to the Post.

Abbas Ibrahim, former head of Lebanon’s General Security, said the deportations are in fact a call for help from Western countries: “Come pay, come do something for us, so that we slow down” these deportations.

The West, Ibrahim continued, does not support the return of Syrians but does not do enough to help Lebanon welcome the refugees.

“Western recklessness is no longer accepted,” he said, “so we want to do something to say no…come talk to us. We are the owners of this country.


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