Home > Press Articles > Refugees aplenty but no Convention- Daily Star

Refugees aplenty but no Convention- Daily Star

By Simona Sikimic
28/5/2011
BEIRUT: A small country, still burdened by its own developmental challenges, Lebanon has nonetheless by the virtue of its geography been repeatedly plunged into the heart of the worldwide refugee debate.

Despite the unavoidable centrality of the issue and the recent influx of Syrian refugee – some 5,000 who are thought to have crossed into northern Lebanon in recent months – debate about how to deal with those fleeing persecution or conflict has been avoided and attempts to formulate a coherent strategy sidelined.
“It’s time that we had a frank and open discussion about whether or not Lebanon can take any more refugees,” said Nadim Houry, Beirut director for Human Rights Watch.

As the United Nations celebrates the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on the Rights of Refugees this year, attention has shifted to how Lebanon, which has failed to adopt the treaty, can fill various gaps in its handling of refugees.

“In terms of protection it is time to discuss this in Lebanon, regardless of the political situation, and look at it just from a humanitarian point of view,” said Alexander Adam, deputy country director of the Danish Refugee Council.

Conclusions made by a ministerial committee, chaired to discuss the issue last year, remain classified but seemingly reaffirm the position that “Lebanon is neither a temporary nor a permanent county of asylum,” the Lebanese Center for Human Rights said in a recent report.

This suggests Lebanon will continue to compromise by not extending protection but also by not renouncing its basic duties.

Under existing rules, dating back to 1962, foreigners who enter Lebanon illegally are subject to deportation and imprisonment for up to three months.

Currently Lebanon “does not apply any minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, which is resulting in several violations of the international norms for human rights; arbitrary detention, torture, forced deportation, etc.” said Marie Daunay, CLDH president.

The worst of the violations were rectified by a 2003 memorandum of understanding signed by the government and UNHCR, which stipulates that refugees will be tolerated for a limited period, pending relocation to a third country. But while a move in the right direction, relocation remains agonizingly slow and the system open to abuse.

In recent years the influx of some 50,000 Iraqi refugees, fleeing violence after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, alongside the continuous trickle of Somali refugees, have exposed the inadequacy of the current system, and as many as 580 Iraqi refugees were detained at the height of the crisis in 2007, according to HRW.

Since the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon intensified earlier this month, HRW has again confirmed that at least nine refugees have been arrested for entering Lebanon illegally.

“The men are being detained for illegal entry but they only did so because they were fleeing death,” said Houry.

The U.N. has also criticized the basis for their detention. “We continue to be concerned … with the arrest and detention of asylum seekers including recently arrived Syrians being taken into detention for illegal entry/stay,” said UNHCR public information associate Dana Sleiman, who also praised the government’s management of the Syrian refugee crisis to date.

Since the Convention on the Rights of Refugees was introduced in 1951, over 140 countries have become party to the treaty and its 1967 Optional Protocol. Its basic provisions oblige countries to protect refugees, exempting them from prosecution for illegal entry and preventing them from forcible repatriation to a country where they may be at risk of persecution.

Adoption, however, has been a red line and critics have branded the treaty as a step toward the naturalization of the 400,000 U.N.-registered Palestinian refugees, almost a tenth of the total Lebanese population.

The argument has been slammed as bogus, with Houry calling it a, “common mistake” as the refugee convention “technically doesn’t apply for the [1948 Palestinian refugees].”

The 1951 convention does not cover refugees serviced by previous U.N. mandates, such as the U.N. Relief and Work Agency, the main U.N. agency mandated with dealing with the estimated 4.7 million Palestinian refugees in the region that was created in 1949.

“Therefore Lebanon’s argument seems to be a false pretext for not ratifying the convention,” said Daunay.

Even without the convention, Lebanon is bound by many other obligations, including its own Constitution based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to not deport people who face the threat of death or torture.

“Seeking asylum is not an unlawful act,” said Sleiman.

The 1951 convention is still relevant but, “it is not the sole repository of state obligations towards refugees. Lebanon … is bound to recognize the fundamental rights of refugee,” she added.

So while adoption remains the ultimate objective, “at the same time there are ways we could make the arrangement that provide them legal protection,” said Houry.

“This is something to do now, and have been urging for since 2007,” he added while stressing domestic laws should be amended to protect refugees for the duration of their stay.

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