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 a steady supply of medication for her epilepsy.
“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 five 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, 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 checkpoints 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 three out of four people now live in poverty.
Tensions between Lebanese and Syrians are increasingly palpable.
Al-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.”