Fleeing war-torn Syria to Lebanon, Palestinian refugee Adnan thought he would find safety and a better life, but he is not out of danger.
On the night of his escape, Adnan’s father had received the dreaded call from a friend to tell him “your son must leave Syria tonight, they are coming for him in the morning”, Adnan explains.
Having taken part in civil defence work during the regime’s attack on Homs in 2011, Adnan was now on the government’s wanted list and only had a few hours to get to safety.
Everyone like him, he explains, is considered a terrorist by the Syrian regime, even children. Air strikes and artillery barrages do not discriminate between civilians and fighters, children, women and men. Medical workers were targeted, he adds, “especially those who treated everyone including protestors, like myself.”
Making his way to Lebanon, he became one of 120,000 Palestinian refugees who escaped Syria and headed to neighbouring countries.
However, according to the UN, the 31,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon find they do not fare much better, rather they face a “precarious and marginalised existence”.
Adnan made the journey to Lebanon alone after his Syrian wife, Rania, was traumatised by the war and left unable to cope following the birth of their first child, Karam. Rania abandoned the family and was smuggled to Sweden alone.
“I became the sole caretaker for my son, and Lebanon was difficult. There was no work inside the refugee camp, so I had to go outside the camp to seek work.”
One day while in Beirut, Adnan was set upon by a militia which he believes belonged to one of the two major Shia factions in the country; Hezbollah or Amal. They hit him on the head with their rifles but he managed to escape.
However even in the camp the Assad regime’s arms reached every corner, unknown men would turn up at the camp, search for him and ask about his whereabouts. Adnan had to leave his home and began to sleep at friends’ houses to avoid being caught again.
“Of course, I never approached the police to report the attack and the harassment because I know of others who have done so and were detained.”
Mohamad, another refugee and lawyer from Syria, who advises refugees on legal matters regarding their stay in Lebanon, tells MEMO, “There is no law in Lebanon, Hezbollah runs the streets. They are the law.”
I try to give advice on legal matters, but to be honest, at the end of the day, Lebanon is not run by the law these days, it is run by gangs and refugees are the weakest target. With no protection.
“I have numerous accounts of Syrians who have been attacked but I advise them not to go to the authorities as they often collaborate with various groups and those who have put their trust in the police were detained and some were tortured.”
Adnan appealed to Amnesty International, which told him it had been inundated with similar cases from both Palestinian refugees and Syrians who were living in fear in Lebanon. “I had nowhere else to turn,” he laments.
Living in fear
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented 700 cases of refugees that have been kidnapped, imprisoned, beaten or even tortured in Lebanon. It says vulnerable refugees have been forced to limit their movement; making it harder to find work or earn a living.
Lebanon is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which prohibits arbitrary arrest; and the official line of the Lebanese government remains that it has played no part in the forceful return, abduction or killing of any refugees on its soil. However, evidence to suggest otherwise has been mounting, not least from inside the Lebanese government itself, perhaps showing signs of fractures within the system.
Lebanese Minister of State for Refugees Affairs Mouin Merhebi told AP in November 2018 that Lebanon is forcefully returning refugees and that he had “personally documented cases of refugees” that were forced to return to Syria and were subsequently killed. He blamed the Syrian regime and its allies. SNHR says it has strong evidence to suggest that Syrian security forces provided Lebanese security forces lists of names, these people are later arrested, detained and killed.
Susan Mastrand, an independent Danish volunteer who has been working on Adnan’s case in Lebanon, tells me she wishes that the EU could do more to help Adnan and his five-year-old son, Karam. “The child is kept in a prison, where he can’t run, he can’t go outside, he can’t experience connections with other children. Karam is growing up in this environment where not only is he kept within these four walls 95 per cent of his life, he is not getting the nutrition and vitamins that he needs.”
Due to the lack of activity in Karam’s life his mental development is that of a child half his age and he has learning difficulties. Many of his health conditions are a direct result of malnutrition and a lack of sunlight.
In Search of hope
Over the border, the Assad regime has regained control of most of Syria. For those who oppose the regime, like Adnan, this means return is not an option. Adnan doesn’t have the thousands of dollars needed to be smuggled across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, nor does he want to risk his son’s life at sea.
“My only option was to apply for asylum in a country outside Lebanon and Syria,” he explains.
He was hopeful when in November 2015 Amnesty told him it was referring his case to the French and Swiss governments. UNHCR also referred his case to France for possible resettlement but it was rejected. In January, Adnan’s cousin who carries the same first and last name as him was detained and tortured to death. After hearing this, Adnan took his son and moved to an even more isolated area.
“My cousin was not involved in any activity against the regime, his only crime is that he had the same name as me. That was supposed to be me, not him.”
Adnan’s visa application to Switzerland was rejected. The letter read: “You are in a safe third country and not considered in danger.”