Amnesty International urges Lebanon to reconsider ‘voluntary returns’ plan for Syrian refugees

Syrian workers straighten iron rods collected from the rubble of destroyed buildings to reuse, at a makeshift workshop in the northern city of Raqa, on October 15, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 15 October 2022
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Amnesty International urges Lebanon to reconsider ‘voluntary returns’ plan for Syrian refugees

  • New repatriation campaign welcomed by President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement

BEIRUT: Amnesty International has urged Lebanese authorities to halt plans to return Syrian refugees to their country involuntarily.

The call follows Beirut’s announcement that it will start sending refugees back to Syria in batches this month.

Lebanon received around $5.83 billion in humanitarian aid between 2013 and 2018 specifically allocated for Syrian refugees.

Caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar said recently Lebanon did not need an international green light to return refugees to their home country, adding: “We are a sovereign country that makes its own choices and only informs the international community of its decisions.”

Hajjar is in charge of the repatriation plan, launched last month, in coordination with President Michel Aoun and the relevant Lebanese ministerial committee.

The plan aims to deport 15,000 Syrian refugees in cooperation with authorities in Damascus.

Aoun announced the start of the repatriations as of next week while also announcing Lebanon’s approval of the maritime border demarcation proposal with Israel.

The repatriation plan has previously been rejected by the UN over security and human rights concerns.

Lebanese authorities have dealt with the presence of Syrian refugees, who sought asylum in Lebanon 11 years ago on account of the outbreak of their country’s civil war, as an unwanted burden, and have asked the international community for funds to help.

Tensions have escalated to the point that Syrian refugees were recently accused of “consuming the bread allocated for Lebanese” against the backdrop of Lebanon’s three-year-long economic collapse.

Official figures for the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon varies, with authorities estimating that there are more than 1.5 million refugees on their territory, while UNHCR states that the number of registered refugees is no more than 880,000.

Hajjar said Lebanon was keen on securing a safe return for Syrians currently taking shelter in his country, adding that requests for voluntary repatriation would be open for acceptance and that steps would escalate in the next phase.

The date for the repatriation of an initial 1,600 Syrian refugees depends on a decision issued by the General Directorate of General Security, which in turn awaits responses from the Syrian authorities so that repatriation procedures can proceed, said Hajjar.

Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, said the resumption of repatriations would take place according to the same mechanism adopted previously, with lists of Syrian refugees applying for repatriation sent to Syrian authorities, who in turn grant security and judicial approvals for those allowed to return.

Thousands of Syrians in Lebanon fear a forced return to their country, though, with hundreds of families reluctant to make the decision, either because males are subject to compulsory military service in Syria, lingering worries over the legacy of the conflict, or because the areas from which they were displaced have witnessed opposition to the regime, making it unlikely they will be allowed to return home.

Syrian activist and refugee Abou Odai Amer: “Among 60,000 Syrian refugees in Arsal, 400 individuals want to return to western Qalamoun, which is the least affected region in Al-Qusayr and its surroundings.”

Amer clarified that registration happened 25 days ago through a lawyer in charge of legal repatriation.

These refugees had registered their names in previous repatriation convoys but they were not granted approval by the Syrian authorities.

Every one of them is now waiting Syrian approval, said Amer.

Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s acting deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, called on Lebanon to respect its obligations under international law and halt its plans to return Syrian refugees en masse.

She pointed out that international law prohibited constructive forced repatriation, which occurs when states use indirect means to force individuals to return to a place where they were at real risk of serious human rights violations.

The organization revealed that it had previously documented how Syrian refugees were subjected to torture, sexual abuse, forced disappearance and arbitrary detention upon their return to their country.

Semaan called on the international community to keep supporting the millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon amid the escalating economic crisis in the country, to prevent further unsafe returns.

The Lebanese authorities “are scaling up the so-called voluntary returns ... when it is well established that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not in a position to take a free and informed decision about their return,” Semaan added.

“In enthusiastically facilitating these returns, the Lebanese authorities are knowingly putting Syrian refugees at risk of suffering from heinous abuse and persecution upon their return to Syria,” she added.

The new repatriation campaign was welcomed by President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.

FPM MP Georges Atallah called on Amnesty International to stand “against the violations to which Lebanon is subjected by being forced to keep the refugees on its territory.”

Independent MP Bilal Hoshaimi, though, warned of the danger of returning refugees in such an unsafe manner, with the absence of any international guarantees over their safety.


Netanyahu says he will pave way to end exemption for ultra-Orthodox from military service

Updated 01 March 2024
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Netanyahu says he will pave way to end exemption for ultra-Orthodox from military service

  • Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 13 percent of Israel’s population, claim the right to study in seminaries instead of serving in uniform for the standard three years
  • Israel’s Supreme Court in 2018 voided a law waiving the draft for ultra-Orthodox men, citing a need for the burden of military service to be shared across Israeli society

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday his government would find a way to end exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews from Israeli military service in the face of political pressures that threaten his narrow coalition’s future.
“We will determine goals for conscripting ultra-Orthodox people to the IDF and national civil service,” Netanyahu said at a press conference, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “We will also determine the ways to implement those goals.”
Israel’s Supreme Court in 2018 voided a law waiving the draft for ultra-Orthodox men, citing a need for the burden of military service to be shared across Israeli society.
Parliament failed to come up with a new arrangement, and a government-issued stay on mandatory conscription of ultra-Orthodox expires in March.
Ultra-Orthodox parties have helped Netanyahu hold a narrow parliamentary majority alongside far-right nationalist parties but in past governments have made draft exemption a condition for remaining in the coalition.
Netanyahu appeared to be responding to a pledge made by his defense minister to veto a law that would allow the continuation of exemptions unless the government reached an agreement paving a path for ultra-Orthodox enlistment.
“We recognize and support those who dedicate their life to studying Jewish holy scripture but, with that, without physical existence there is no spiritual existence,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Wednesday.
The exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews have been a longstanding source of friction with more secular citizens now stoked by the country’s costly mobilization for the Gaza war.
The ultra-Orthodox claim the right to study in seminaries instead of serving in uniform for the standard three years. Some say their pious lifestyles would clash with military mores, while others voice ideological opposition to the liberal state.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 13 percent of Israel’s population, a figure expected to reach 19 percent by 2035 due to their high birth rates. Economists argue that the draft exemption keeps some of them unnecessarily in seminaries and out of the workforce.


‘Mercy tables’ in Egypt suffer from economic crisis as Ramadan nears

Updated 29 February 2024
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‘Mercy tables’ in Egypt suffer from economic crisis as Ramadan nears

CAIRO: Rising food prices and shortages may lead to fewer donations and less food for “tables of mercy” in Egypt during Ramadan.

Such tables are usually seen on Egypt’s streets to provide lower-income people with free iftar.

“There are many philanthropists in Egypt, but the high prices of food items constrain them,” said Kamal Khairy, a cook who worked at the tables in previous years.

A kilogram of meat is now priced at 450 Egyptian pounds ($14.56) in some areas, while a kilogram of rice costs 40 pounds. The price of vegetables has risen to unreasonable levels, Khairy told Arab News.

The meal cost has increased significantly, causing some philanthropists to withdraw from setting up tables this year.

“Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I used to cook at different tables upon request by philanthropists,” he said.

“In one year, I cooked for three tables — one in the morning, another in the afternoon, and the third before sunset. However, no one has asked me this year.”

A 50-year-old Egyptian, who declined to be named, told Arab News: “In previous years, I used to set up a free iftar table near my factory in Al-Azhar. However, I cannot afford the extra expense due to financial constraints this year.”

He said the factory was struggling financially, so he had been cutting expenses.

A car park attendant on Hoda Shaarawi Street in Cairo who gave his name as Uncle Ahmed told Arab News: “Due to the nature of my job, I cannot go home during Ramadan. Therefore, I rely on the ‘mercy table’ set up on the street, where I am a regular guest.”

The man, nearing 60, added: “I used to sit at a table alongside people from diverse social backgrounds, such as delivery workers, nurses, conscripts, and passersby.

“The table used to accommodate more than 500 people but now fits only 50.”

He said that in the past, a meal would typically consist of a meat dish (such as chicken or kofta), a vegetable dish, a salad and rice or pasta.

“There is only one dish that contains rice and vegetables this year, and the size of the chicken and meat has been reduced. Additionally, the salad portion has been reduced."

Ahmed added: “The crisis affects everyone, and we don’t expect more from the philanthropists. I excuse them.

“I pray that our crises in Egypt will be resolved.”

Farid Jamal, a worker at a charity hosting a table, said: “In previous years, people would arrive an hour before the Maghrib prayer, but now they come three hours earlier.

“The social composition has also changed. I see young men and men from good social levels wearing relatively elegant clothes and women who appear to be in a good situation, all reserving their places at the table to get an iftar meal.”


Volunteers brave Israeli air raids to feed Lebanon’s stranded pets

Updated 29 February 2024
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Volunteers brave Israeli air raids to feed Lebanon’s stranded pets

  • Tyre resident recounts heartbreaking scenes in abandoned towns

BEIRUT: Volunteers in southern Lebanon are defying Israeli bombing to feed and care for dogs, cats, birds and other animals that have become victims of the conflict.

Linda Luku — a native of Bint Jbeil now residing in Tyre — is among a growing number of volunteers who have mobilized via social media to support animals amid the military escalation between Hezbollah and Israel.

Their efforts provide a lifeline to the forgotten victims of war as clashes continue to claim the lives of Hezbollah operatives and Lebanese civilians, including innocent children and women.

Amid the clashes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army, thousands of residents of the border region in southern Lebanon have abandoned their homes and villages in recent months.

In heartbreaking decisions, many families opted to leave their cherished pets behind, hoping that their displacement would be short-lived.

With military operations escalating and airstrikes pounding the region, villages have been transformed into desolate ghost towns, leaving animals abandoned and vulnerable to starvation and bombing.

Luku recounted the heartbreaking scenes she encountered during a visit to her hometown of Bint Jbeil.

Stray cats and dogs — emaciated and desperate — roamed the streets, their suffering palpable as their ribs protruded from hunger.

The sight was particularly harrowing for Luku, who, moved by compassion, set out with her brother on a mission to provide relief.

They managed to secure leftover chicken from a local slaughterhouse in Maaroub owned by a friend, and then journeyed to their hometown to distribute food to the starving animals.

“These animals are not strays. They belong to beautiful breeds commonly kept as household pets. They are now left to fend for themselves, searching for sustenance in towns abandoned by humans,” Luku said.

She added: “It is a poignant scene. As I navigate through these towns, I am confronted with the sight of starving animals, and the distressing images linger with me through the night.

“Amid the conflict, there is a heartbreaking lack of awareness. Residents remaining in villages under bombardment often withhold food from these animals.”

“Many times, I traverse villages devoid of human presence, with only Israeli warplanes hovering above, surveilling the area.”

Qassem Haidar, 28, from Shaqra in southern Lebanon, still lives in the area with his family despite facing constant bombardment.

“I have my own business, yet I sympathize with animals,” he said, adding: “I started feeding animals in my village after I was shocked to see a dog eating a cat in Beit Leif. It was so horrible. I could not stand it.

“I resorted to social media, asking anyone who had food leftovers to keep them, taking it upon myself to collect and distribute them to abandoned animals.

“I took photos of the hungry animals and posted them online. Many showed sympathy, and I started receiving donations, from dry food bags to gasoline costs, to move around between the villages.

“I also reached out to animal welfare organizations. I dedicate three hours of my time every day to going around the villages and posting stories on Instagram.

“I visited every village in the border area, from Ayta Al-Shaab to Kfarkela, spending a few minutes in some due to the bombardment and more than an hour in others.

Haidar said: “I used to leave food on the sides of the roads. Sometimes, if I come across a civilian still in his house, I leave bags of food at his place so that he can feed the animals.

“I also cooperate with the medics in the region to distribute food to animals. I have a town visit schedule, and I know when I should return and visit them to leave food for the animals.

“I don’t want to be late, so they do not starve to death or eat each other. I have seen cats and dogs that died of cardiac arrest due to the sound of exploding shells. Their heartbeats were so fast. They experienced absolute terror.

“They know when a shell is about to drop, and they disperse before it does. I followed their instincts and survived bombings more than once. Israelis bombed the sites I was at in many towns five minutes after I left them.

“I often used to be the only person on the road in towns in the line of fire. My mother is always worried about me. However, I am convinced these lives cannot be abandoned,” he added.

Haidar’s mission goes beyond feeding dogs, cats, and birds. He also takes sick or wounded animals to local vets.

Firas Faraj, a founder of the Strays Welfare Association in Tyre, said that many of the pets left behind are waiting for their owners to return.

He added: “We do not have an accurate number of abandoned animals, yet we are dealing with the problem case by case.

“The issue has gained some sympathy, but the need is still greater than what is provided. UNIFIL forces previously sympathized with us since the unit commanders love animals and provided us access to a field hospital.

“However, with the opening of the southern battlefront, all aid was suspended, and we rely on individual initiatives.”


El-Sisi, Al-Burhan discuss developments in Sudan

Updated 29 February 2024
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El-Sisi, Al-Burhan discuss developments in Sudan

  • Al-Burhan said that Egypt’s role in hosting Sudanese citizens and mitigating the crisis provided evidence of its continued friendship
  • El-Sisi and Al-Burhan agreed on the necessity of an immediate ceasefire in Gaza

CAIRO: Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Thursday received Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, president of the Transitional Sovereignty Council of Sudan, at Cairo International Airport.

An official reception ceremony took place at Al-Ittihadiya Palace, at which the national anthems were played and guards of honor inspected.

The meeting focused on recent developments in Sudan and efforts to resolve its crisis.

The main goal is to restore stability while ensuring sovereignty, unity, and cohesion of the Sudanese state and its institutions.

The meeting was an attempt to meet the Sudanese people’s desire for safety and stability.

Ahmed Fahmy, the presidential spokesman, said that El-Sisi focused on the solid historic relations between the two countries, emphasizing Egypt’s support in enhancing cooperation.

The president stressed Egypt’s commitment to Sudan’s security and offered full support to achieve political, security, and economic stability.

He affirmed Egypt’s commitment to supporting Sudan’s unity and resolving ongoing conflicts.

He added that the two countries shared a close relationship, which made it necessary to ensure national security.

The president spoke of Egypt’s ongoing role in helping to alleviate the humanitarian impact of the current crisis within Sudan.

Al-Burhan expressed his country’s appreciation for Egypt’s support. He highlighted the long-standing ties between the two countries, while saying that Egypt’s role in hosting Sudanese citizens and mitigating the crisis provided evidence of its continued friendship.

The parties also discussed the situation in Gaza and regional issues of mutual concern.

El-Sisi and Al-Burhan agreed on the necessity of an immediate ceasefire and the urgent need to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

They also agreed to continue consultations and coordination to help benefit the populations of Egypt and Sudan.

The Sudanese leader made an official visit to Egypt in August last year, his first following the start of his country’s conflict in April. Al-Burhan and El-Sisi met in the city of Alamein in northern Egypt.


Palestinian president issues ‘categorical rejection’ of Israeli PM’s post-war plan

Updated 29 February 2024
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Palestinian president issues ‘categorical rejection’ of Israeli PM’s post-war plan

  • Netanyahu wants Israel to retain security control over Palestinian areas and make reconstruction dependent on demilitarization
  • Abbas charged that the plan confirmed the Israeli government’s intentions to recolonize the Gaza Strip

CAIRO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has stressed “categorical Palestinian rejection” of the principles announced in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s so-called post-war plan for Gaza.

Netanyahu wants Israel to retain security control over Palestinian areas and make reconstruction dependent on demilitarization.

His plan, which brings together a range of well-established Israeli positions, underlines Netanyahu’s resistance to the creation of a Palestinian state which he sees as a security threat.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit has received a written message from Abbas which calls for a global conference to adopt a comprehensive peace plan with international guarantees and a timeline for implementation of the ending of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Abbas has called on the league to support Palestine in obtaining full membership of the UN.

The message urged countries that have not yet recognized Palestine to do so.

Aboul Gheit received Ambassador Muhannad Al-Aklouk, representative of Palestine to the bloc, at the headquarters of the general secretariat, and Al-Aklouk had brought a message from Abbas.

Jamal Rushdi, a spokesperson for the Arab League chief, said that the president’s message included a categorical Palestinian rejection of the principles announced by the Israeli prime minister for the so-called “day after of the war.”

The message included a warning of the danger of those principles — especially the denial of the existence of the Palestinian people, and insisting on imposing Israeli sovereignty on the land extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Abbas charged that the plan confirmed the Israeli government’s intentions to recolonize the Gaza Strip and perpetuate the occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem through plans to build thousands of settlement units.

Rushdi said that the message warned that the goal of the Israeli government was not only to undermine the chances of peace based on the two-state solution, but also to intensify ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

The president’s message included the affirmation that the Gaza Strip is an integral part of the State of Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority is ready to assume the responsibilities of governance in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, and is prepared to work toward establishing security and peace, as well as stability, in the region within the framework of a comprehensive peace plan.

The message called on the Arab League’s chief to continue working for a ceasefire; the provision of humanitarian aid; the return of displaced people to their homes in the north; the prevention of their displacement; and a halt to Israel’s expansionist plans and practices in the Gaza Strip.

Aboul Gheit confirmed to Al-Aklouk that he would continue to work to achieve all the goals highlighted in the president’s message — most notably an immediate ceasefire, working to bring aid in urgently and sustainably, and standing with full force against the displacement plan.

Aboul Gheit stressed that stopping the war remained a fundamental priority for the Arab League and its member states.

He reiterated that the Palestinians, Arabs, and the world always rejected the displacement plan.

Aboul Gheit pointed out that addressing the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israeli aggression could not be achieved in isolation from a settlement aiming at the emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

He emphasized that the Palestinians were capable of governing themselves.

Aboul Gheit added that the continuation of the occupation was no longer possible and that the two-state solution remained the only formula capable of achieving security, peace, and stability between Palestinians and Israelis in the region and the world.