As the economy in Lebanon continues to plummet, an increasing number of Syrian refugees have opted to chance returning to Syria, but with the border closed due to coronavirus, some have gotten stuck in the buffer zone between the countries.

According to a rights monitoring group and officials, in recent weeks, dozens of Syrians have gotten stuck at the border at the Masnaa crossing. Although the border has been officially closed since mid-March, Lebanese citizens have been allowed to return from Syria and some Syrians have been allowed to cross in the other direction.

A report released Tuesday expressed concerns that deteriorating conditions in Lebanon are pushing Syrians to unsafe returns.

“At the beginning of this month, dozens of Syrian families gathered for long days at the Syrian-Lebanese border, desiring to return to Syria because of the bad conditions they are suffering in Lebanon,” the monitoring group Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD) wrote.

Refugees seeking to return to Syria had arrived at the border in different groups over the past several weeks, Haya Atassi, a spokeswoman for SACD, told Al Arabiya English.

The Syrians had passed the last checkpoint marking the end of Lebanese territory and entered into a buffer zone with shared authority between the two countries, which extends for several kilometers before the Syrian border, but they were denied entry at the Syrian border, she said.

No man's land

“They thought they would be allowed to enter into their country, but they were not, so they got stuck in no man’s land, in this area between the Syrian and the Lebanese border,” she said.

From time to time, she said, the Syrian authorities would allow a group to come through and go into quarantine, but said it seemed to be “arbitrary” which citizens were allowed to cross.

While returning Lebanese citizens are told to quarantine at home for two weeks, returning Syrians are required to go into government-run quarantine facilities.

A spokesman for Lebanese General Security confirmed that Syrians had gotten stuck at the border but said he did not know how many. The Syrians, he said, had “left Lebanon via an illegal crossing without passing by General Security, and they are stuck with the Syrian (authorities) who will not let them in before they do a coronavirus test.”

Syrian authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

At the Lebanese General Security office ahead of the border crossing Thursday, a few groups of Syrians approached with suitcases in hand but were turned back by General Security officers who said they needed a negative COVID-19 test and permission from the Syrian embassy in Beirut in order to cross.
Al Arabiya English was not granted permission to enter the buffer area at the border to speak to the Syrians stuck there.

Alternative routes

Shortly after being turned away from the official crossing, one group of men could be seen making their way through the barren hills facing the crossing on foot, hauling their suitcases.

Another group – two men and a woman along with a baby and small child – told Al Arabiya English that they had applied at the Syrian embassy for repatriation two months ago but had gotten tired of waiting. One of the young men, who declined to give his name, said they had no work and had run out of money.

“We don’t have enough money left to eat,” he said. The young man said they had heard that “the people who are there at the border, every week or ten days they’re letting them across. We said we’ll come and sit until they let us in, because otherwise, we don’t have anything.”

Atassi said that some refugees who had legal residency in Lebanon had been able to return back to Lebanese territory, while others had managed to cross into Syria, in some cases by paying smugglers or bribing border guards. But several dozen others remain stuck, she said.

Aid organizations had not been allowed access and that the Syrians had been buying food and drinks from the border guards, she said. UNHCR officials declined to comment on the situation.

Lebanese officials have been vocal in pushing for the Syrian refugees – of whom there are currently about 910,000 registered and potentially hundreds of thousands more unregistered in the country – to go back to Syria.

Before the coronavirus hit, Lebanese General Security had been organizing “voluntary return” trips for Syrians willing to repatriate every month or two. In the last trip in February, General Security reported that 1,093 Syrians had gone back. UN officials, who interview the returnees before they go, have said that economic issues and the rising cost of living have been among the major reasons cited for going.

With the economic situation now deteriorating even further in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the SACD report raised concerns that failure by the international community to provide adequate support to the refugees would amount to a “de facto forced return” into potentially unsafe conditions.

“The international community must act to support the Lebanese government in facing the burdens of hosting Syrian refugees, while at the same time making firm demands for discrimination against Syrian refugees to be curtailed through legal means.”