Lebanon: Security concerns trumping human rights in Ersal

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Lebanon is currently home to over one million Syrian refugees (Photo: AFP)

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Saturday, October 11, 2014

Two separate reports published recently by the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch said that elements in the Lebanese army had committed “serious” violations against refugees during the clashes in Ersal. In addition, more than 45 municipalities have imposed curfews on Syrian nationals, a move widely seen as a racist practice.

International organizations involved in the Syrian crisis response are often at pains to showcase their achievements and the amounts of money they have spent on the refugees and their host communities, but there is other important information published by these organizations that seem not to merit the same kind of attention, and usually end up being in a few pages of obscure reports that are not dealt with as seriously as they should be.

For instance, recently released reports have focused on racially motivated acts targeting the refugees. Two key reports were published this month, addressing two important issues: the repercussions of what happened at the refugee camps in Ersal last month following battles with Syrian militants, and the curfew imposed on Syrian refugees by a number of Lebanese municipalities.

The report published in early October by the organizations working as part of the Syrian crisis response in collaboration with the UNHCR included a chapter titled “the situation in Arsal.” The report outlines figures and data without holding anyone responsible or attempting to reach out to the relevant authorities to open an investigation into what had happened.

The report mentions that between September 19 and 24, more than 200 Syrian refugees, including minors, were arrested in Ersal by the Lebanese army. There were also reports that the army evicted a large number of refugees living in private homes. On September 25, the retaliatory measures reached a peak with the Lebanese army launching a crackdown in the area of Ras al-Jafar, affecting nine informal communities with a total population of around 4,535.

The organizations behind the report did not make any accusations against the army or armed elements of burning the refugees’ tents. Rather, the report states that during the raids, tents were burned in one of the random communities, completely destroying 96 tents.

The raids were coupled with a large campaign of arrests targeting males aged between 15 and 80. Reports indicate that between 300 and 500 people were detained, most of whom have since been released after their identities were verified. The report goes on to say that those raids took place in a violent manner, with a number of violations being recorded, including cases of physical and verbal assault, intimidation, and humiliation. This was corroborated by photographs of refugees in restraints on the ground contained in the report.

These developments pushed more than 30 percent of the refugees to leave the area, and flee either to Syria or to nearby areas within Lebanon. The organizations also shed light on the army’s evictions, saying that more than 20 informal settlements received orders to evict.

To date, 288 homes and 845 tents have been evicted, while preliminary estimates indicate there are 40 communities threatened with eviction, bringing the number of refugees affected by army operations in the region to around 12,000. The report concludes by recognizing serious violations committed by elements in the Lebanese army against the refugees who were detained, without anyone being prosecuted or held accountable.

The municipalities

The clashes in Ersal were also used as a pretext by municipalities to expand their racist decisions they had started implementing some time ago.

At 9 pm, “Walid” (a Syrian refugee), who lives in the Zalka area, went out to get medicine for his sick son from a nearby pharmacy. As soon as the municipal police spotted him on the street, they stopped him, citing the curfew imposed on Syrians after 8 pm. They prevented the man from getting medicine for his son, and forced him to return to his home.

No one held the police accountable. Walid’s son did not get his medicine because someone decided that security should trump human rights, and that stability can only be ensured through racist practices.

A Human Rights Watch report published in early October as well reveals that at least 45 Lebanese municipalities imposed curfews on Syrian refugees across the country, which the report said “contribute to a climate of discriminatory and retaliatory practices against them.”

The report warned against vigilante groups forming in Lebanese regions to enforce these curfews, some of which are supported covertly by the local authorities. The report stressed the need to disband these groups and to cease any kind of support they may receive from the municipalities and other authorities. The report contains many accounts of what some refugees were subjected to as a result of these measures. In some cases, the report continues, “curfew violators would be given a warning, or in other cases would be taken to the municipality for questioning,” and even could be detained for hours in some municipalities.

But Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas stresses that Lebanon “has proven to this day to be the best host country for the refugees.” He added, “We started hosting Syrians when the UN was not present; the UN only started taking action a while ago.”

Derbas condemns the violations, but he does not believe they tarnish Lebanon’s image. He said, “They are speaking about dozens of attacks in their reports when we host 1.3 million refugees. This makes these assaults the exception to the rule, which is that the refugees have been received well.”

Derbas believes the measures of the municipalities are “preventive,” and calls on organizations to compare the conditions of the refugees in Lebanon to those in other countries, where refugees are prohibited from leaving their camps’ premises whereas in Lebanon they can travel freely across the Lebanese territory.

Regarding the events in Ersal, Derbas puts them in the context of the battles that took place there. He said, “There was an invasion, and the tents were in middle of the conflict zone, so accusations should not be leveled at the army.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

While any human rights violation by the Lebanese Army should not be excused it must be acknowledged that there are elements among the refugee population who have acted as an advance guard and intelligence gathering service for the worst of rebels such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS but this will not be highlighted by an American orientated so called human rights organisation like HRW.

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