‘I can’t return to Syria but there’s no future for me in Lebanon’

Syrians fleeing the Assad regime face an increasing risk of violence and deportation when they reach Lebanon

At dawn late last month, soldiers from the Lebanese army entered two informal camps in Arsal, a Lebanese town in a mountainous region near Syria, and detained several Syrian men.

“Some have already been deported,” says an aid worker at a school for Syrian children in Arsal, who did not provide their name for fear of reprisal. “All our teachers here are very worried.”

Over the last year, according to the UN, there has been a sharp increase in deportation of Syrians from Lebanon, where an estimated 1.5 million have sought refuge from conflict and persecution by the regime of president Bashar al-Assad, as well as relief from a dire economic situation and forced military conscription.

Like many young men in Syria, Muhammad (29) spent several extra years in university to avoid military conscription. The mandatory service applies to men aged 18-42 and can last up to 10 years. “Every second year I would deliberately fail,” he says of his time at university. “I have to find it funny, otherwise, I would be depressed.”


After finally graduating and paying about €93 to reach Lebanon two years ago, Muhammad works in a cafe in east Beirut. He would like to do a master’s degree and become a politician: “In another country you can dream of being president or prime minister – that’s not possible in Syria, there is only one thought and one way of living allowed.”

In between serving customers, he laboriously translates an old copy of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm to improve his English. “I can’t return to Syria but there’s no future for me in Lebanon,” says Muhammad. “My only hope is to reach another country.”

Syrians are facing an increasingly hostile environment in Lebanon where, according to the UN, more than 90 per cent live below the poverty line, many while work in precarious and low wage jobs in construction, agriculture and hospitality. Since March, large billboard posters have appeared across Lebanon calling on the international community to “undo the damage” caused by Syrian refugees.

Tensions rapidly escalated in April after the murder of a local Christian Lebanese official in Byblos, allegedly at the hands of a Syrian gang. The killing triggered violent demonstrations against Syrians across Lebanon, with videos of Syrians being beaten, shaven and tied up circulating online.

Alongside sectarian friction between Lebanese Christians and predominantly Muslim Syrians, there is animosity that goes back to the civil war, when Christian militias fought the Syrian military, which occupied parts of Lebanon from 1976 until 2005.

In Achrafieh, a majority Christian neighbourhood in Beirut, groups hung notices telling Syrians to leave. In Bourj Hammoud, Lebanese men drove on motorbikes with speaker phones warning Syrians they had 48 hours to pack-up and leave.

After the killing in Byblos, Lebanon’s acting interior minister, Bassam Mawlawi, said the country “will become stricter in granting residency permits and dealing with [Syrians] residing in Lebanon illegally.” He claimed, without providing evidence, that “many crimes are being committed by Syrians” and that the “Syrian presence in Lebanon can no longer be tolerated”.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, fewer than one fifth of Syrian families in Lebanon report that all members above 15 years hold legal residency, which is prohibitively costly for most households. This means the majority of Syrians, including those registered as refugees with the UNHCR, are vulnerable when passing through checkpoints in Lebanon, where they risk having their vehicles confiscated, or being detained and deported to Syria.

The Access Center for Human Rights, a Syrian-led NGO based in Beirut and Paris, gathered testimonies from Syrian refugees and found evidence of possible collaboration between the Lebanese and Syrian armies in handing over refugees to smuggling gangs along the Syrian border. The gangs often engaged in financial and sexual exploitation. The Lebanese army did not respond to a request for comment.

The Lebanese lawyer Mohammad Sablouh says he has been intimidated by security officials in Lebanon for representing Syrians. His clients include Rafaat al-Faleh, a defector from the Syrian army, whose family has not been able to contact him since he was deported and handed over to the Syrian authorities earlier in 2024.

The NGO Human Rights Watch has criticised the Lebanese government for returning people to countries where they face a clear risk of torture or persecution, in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture and the principle of nonrefoulment.

Lebanon’s acting minister of social affairs, Hector Hajjar, has proposed removing all tents and settlements used by Syrians who do not meet the criteria of a displaced person. Several aid agencies supporting Syrian communities say they are facing increasing difficulties delivering large water tanks to informal camps, as well as providing aid that would make dwellings more durable in harsh weather and protect against the risk of fire. Ramzi Kaiss, a Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, says: “Lebanese officials have for years imposed discriminatory practices against Syrians in the country as a way of coercing them to return to Syria, which remains unsafe.”

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