Some Syrian refugees risk returning to opposition-held areas as hostility in host Lebanon grows

FILE - Syrian refugees gather near trucks with their belongings, as they prepare to go back home to Syria as a part of a voluntary return, in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. For more than a decade, a steady flow of Syrians have crossed the border from their war-torn country into Lebanon. But anti-refugee sentiment is rising there, and over the past two months, hundreds of Syrian refugees have gone the other way. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
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Updated 12 June 2024
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Some Syrian refugees risk returning to opposition-held areas as hostility in host Lebanon grows

  • As precarious as the situation is in Lebanon, most refugees still prefer it to northwest Syria, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups

IDLIB: For more than a decade, a steady flow of Syrians have crossed the border from their war-torn country into Lebanon. But anti-refugee sentiment is rising there, and in the past two months, hundreds of Syrian refugees have gone the other way.
They’re taking a smugglers’ route home across remote mountainous terrain, on motorcycle or on foot, then traveling by car on a risky drive through government-held territory into opposition-held northwestern Syria, avoiding checkpoints or bribing their way through.
Until this year, the numbers returning from Lebanon were so low that the local government in Idlib run by the insurgent group Hayat Tahrir al Sham had not formally tracked them. Now it has recorded 1,041 people arriving from Lebanon in May, up from 446 the month before. A Turkish-backed local administration overseeing other parts of northwest Syria said arrivals from Lebanon have increased there, too.
Tiny, crisis-wracked Lebanon is the host of the highest per capita population of refugees in the world and has long felt the strain. About 780,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UN refugee agency there and hundreds of thousands more are unregistered.
For years, and particularly since the country sank into an unprecedented economic crisis in 2019, Lebanese officials have called for the refugees to be returned to Syria or resettled elsewhere. Tensions flared in April when an official with the Christian nationalist Lebanese Forces party, Pascal Suleiman, was killed in what military officials said was a botched carjacking by a Syrian gang.
That prompted outbreaks of anti-Syrian violence by vigilante groups. Lebanese security agencies cracked down on refugees, raiding and closing down businesses employing undocumented Syrian workers.
In hundreds of cases, authorities have deported refugees. The Lebanese government has also organized “voluntary return” trips for those willing to return to government-held areas, but few have signed up, fearing retaliation from Syria’s government and security forces.
As precarious as the situation is in Lebanon, most refugees still prefer it to northwest Syria, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups under regular bombing by Syrian government forces. It also suffers from aid cuts by international organizations that say resources are going to newer crises elsewhere in the world.
For Walid Mohammed Abdel Bakki, who went back to Idlib in April, the problems of staying in Lebanon finally outweighed the dangers of return.
“Life in Lebanon was hell, and in the end we lost my son,” he said.
Abdel Bakki’s adult son, Ali, 30, who he said has struggled with schizophrenia, disappeared for several days in early April after heading from the Bekaa valley to Beirut to visit his sister and look for work.
His family eventually found him at a police station in the town of Baabda. He was alive but “his body was all black and blue,” Abdel Bakki said. Some reports by activist groups said he was beaten by a racist gang, but Abdel Bakki asserted that his son had been arrested by Lebanese army intelligence for reasons that are unclear. Ali described being beaten and tortured with electric shocks, he said. He died several days later.
A spokesman for army intelligence did not respond to a request for comment. Faysal Dalloul, the forensic doctor who examined Ali, said he had multiple “superficial” wounds but scans of his head and chest had not found anything abnormal, and concluded that his death was natural.
Abdel Bakki was distraught enough that he borrowed $1,200 to pay smugglers to take him and his 11-year-old son to northwestern Syria, a journey that included an arduous trek through the mountains on foot.
“We spent a week on the road and we were afraid all the time,” he said.
They now stay with relatives in Idlib. Their own house had been damaged in an airstrike and then gutted by thieves.
Mohammad Hassan, director of the Access Center for Human Rights, an nongovernmental organization tracking the conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, said an “orchestrated wave of hate speech and violence against refugees, justified by political leaders” is pushing some to leave out of fear that otherwise they will be forcibly deported.
While Lebanese officials have warned against vigilante attacks on refugees, they also regularly blame Syrians for rising crime rates and called for more restrictions on them.
Hassan said the route from Lebanon to Idlib is “controlled by Lebanese and Syrian smuggling gangs linked with local and cross-border militias” and is not safe.
The route is particularly risky for those who are wanted for arrest in Syria’s government-controlled areas for dodging army service or for real or suspected affiliation with the opposition.
Ramzi Youssef, from southern Idlib province, moved to Lebanon before Syria’s civil war for work. He remained as a refugee after the conflict began.
He returned to Idlib last year with his wife and children, paying $2,000 to smugglers, driven by “racism, pressure from the state, the economic collapse in Lebanon and the lack of security.”
In Aleppo, the family was stopped at a checkpoint and detained after the soldiers realized they had come from Lebanon. Youssef said he was transferred among several military branches and interrogated.
“I was tortured a lot, even though I was outside the country since 2009 and had nothing to do with anything (in the war),” he said. “They held me responsible for other people, for my relatives.”
Syria’s government has denied reports of torture and extrajudicial killings in detention centers and accuses Western governments of launching smear campaigns against it and supporting “terrorists.”
In the end, Youssef was released and sent to compulsory military service. He escaped weeks later and made his way to Idlib with his family.
He said he has not looked back.
“Despite the poverty and living in a tent and everything else, believe me, I’m happy and until now I haven’t regretted that I came back from Lebanon,” he said.


Syrian official who oversaw prisons with widespread allegations of abuse arrested by US officials

Updated 4 sec ago
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Syrian official who oversaw prisons with widespread allegations of abuse arrested by US officials

  • Samir Ousman Al-Sheikh, 72, was arrested last week at Los Angeles International Airport on immigration fraud charges
  • Al-Sheikh, who was in charge of Syria’s infamous Adra prison, ‘provided materially false information on his visa application’
LOS ANGELES: A former Syrian military official who oversaw prisons with widespread allegations of abuse has been arrested in Los Angeles.
Samir Ousman Al-Sheikh, 72, was arrested last week at Los Angeles International Airport on immigration fraud charges, specifically that he denied on his US visa and citizenship applications that he had ever carried out any abuse in Syria, according to a criminal complaint filed on July 9.
Al-Sheikh, who was in charge of Syria’s infamous Adra prison, “provided materially false information on his visa application by falsely stating that he had not committed, ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in extrajudicial killings, political killings, or other acts of violence,” the complaint states. Al-Sheikh has been a resident of Los Angeles since 2020.
Investigators were considering additional charges, according to court papers.
“This is the highest level Assad regime official arrested anywhere in the world, it is the highest regime official arrested in the United States for sure, if not the only one of his type,” Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, said Wednesday. “This is a really big deal, it’s unprecedented.”
Human rights groups and United Nations officials have accused the Syrian government of widespread abuses in its detention facilities, including torture and arbitrary detention of thousands of people, in many cases without informing their families about their fate. Many remain missing and are presumed to have died or been executed.
Other players in Syria’s civil war, now in its 14th year, have also been accused of abuse of detainees, including insurgent groups and the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which guard suspected and convicted Islamic State members imprisoned in northeastern Syria.
The war, which has left nearly half a million people dead and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million, began as peaceful protests against the government of Bashar Assad in March 2011.

US declares end to troubled Gaza aid pier mission

Updated 33 min 15 sec ago
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US declares end to troubled Gaza aid pier mission

  • Joe Biden has expressed disappointment in the performance of the pier, which has repeatedly been detached from the shore because of bad weather
  • Vice Admiral Brad Cooper: ‘The maritime surge mission involving the pier is complete, so there’s no more need to use the pier’

WASHINGTON: The US military’s problem-plagued mission to deliver desperately needed aid to Gaza via a temporary pier has ended, a senior American officer said Wednesday.
US President Joe Biden has expressed disappointment in the performance of the pier, which has repeatedly been detached from the shore because of bad weather since its initial installation in mid-May, limiting the time it has been operational.
“The maritime surge mission involving the pier is complete, so there’s no more need to use the pier,” Vice Admiral Brad Cooper told journalists.
The pier was damaged by bad weather in May and had to be removed for repairs. It was then reattached on June 7, but was moved to Ashdod on June 14 to protect it from anticipated high seas — a situation that was repeated later in the month.
Distribution of aid once it reaches land has also been a problem, with the UN World Food Programme suspending deliveries of assistance that arrived via the pier last month to assess the security situation after Israel conducted a military operation nearby.
Biden announced the pier project during his State of the Union address in March as Israel held up deliveries of assistance by land, and the Pentagon has said it helped push the Israeli government to open more aid routes.
“The deployment of this pier has... helped secure Israeli commitment to opening additional crossings into northern Gaza,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told journalists last week.
Gaza is suffering through a war that broke out after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 38,794 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to figures from Gaza’s health ministry.


Israel’s West Bank policy is dooming two-state solution: UN chief

An Israeli army excavator moves during a raid in the Nur Shams camp for Palestinian refugees east of Tulkarm in West Bank.
Updated 35 min 41 sec ago
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Israel’s West Bank policy is dooming two-state solution: UN chief

  • Settlement expansion is expected to speed up due to big land seizures in strategic areas and changes to planning, land management and governance, Guterres said
  • “Recent developments are driving a stake through the heart of any prospect for a two-state solution”: UN chief

UNITED NATIONS: Israel’s policy toward the West Bank is dooming any prospect of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday.
Violence and arrests have soared in the Israeli-occupied territory since the Gaza war erupted over Hamas’s October 7 attacks.
Through administrative and legal steps, Israel is changing the geography of the West Bank, Guterres said in a statement read by his chief of staff, Courtenay Rattray, during a meeting of the Security Council.
Settlement expansion is expected to speed up due to big land seizures in strategic areas and changes to planning, land management and governance, Guterres added.
“Recent developments are driving a stake through the heart of any prospect for a two-state solution,” said the UN chief.
He said Israel is taking steps to extend sovereignty over the West Bank.
Guterres said Israel has taken punitive steps against the Palestinian Authority and legalized five Israeli outposts in the West Bank.
Israel has built such outposts as part of its occupation of the West Bank since 1967.
“We must change course. All settlement activity must cease immediately,” Guterres said.
He said Israeli settlements are a flagrant violation of international law and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
Guterres repeated his call for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza war and the release of all hostages.
“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is a moral stain on us all,” Guterres said.
The war began with Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
The militants also seized 251 hostages, 116 of whom are still in Gaza including 42 the Israeli military says are dead.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,794 people, also mostly civilians, according to figures from the Gaza health ministry.


US hits former Israeli military sergeant with visa restrictions

Israeli army soldiers take position during a raid in the Nur Shams camp for Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank.
Updated 17 July 2024
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US hits former Israeli military sergeant with visa restrictions

  • Sergeant Elor Azaria “and any immediate family members are generally ineligible for entry into the United States,” State Department said in a statement

WASHINGTON: The US has imposed visa restrictions against a former Israeli military sergeant for his alleged involvement in gross violations of human rights in the occupied West Bank, including an extrajudicial killing, the State Department said on Wednesday.
As a result of the restrictions, Sergeant Elor Azaria “and any immediate family members are generally ineligible for entry into the United States,” the department said in a statement.
The department also said it was taking steps to impose visa restrictions “on an additional group of individuals for having been involved in or meaningfully contributed to undermining the peace, security, or stability in the West Bank.”


WHO warns of rising attacks on Sudan hospitals

Patients receive treatment at the Gedaref Oncology Hospital in eastern Sudan on May 1, 2024. (AFP)
Updated 17 July 2024
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WHO warns of rising attacks on Sudan hospitals

  • Recent UN-backed report said nearly 26 million people, or slightly more than half of the population, were facing high levels of “acute food insecurity”
  • Both the army and the RSF have been accused of obstructing humanitarian aid and nearly destroying Sudan’s already fragile health care system

CAIRO: Hospitals and other health care facilities in war-torn Sudan are facing increased attacks, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Wednesday as fighting between the army and paramilitaries rages on.
Since the start of the war in April 2023, the WHO has recorded 82 attacks on health care facilities, “including 17 in the last six weeks alone,” said Hanan Balkhy, the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean regional director.
Meanwhile, the country is suffering from the “spread of diseases such as cholera, malaria and meningitis,” she warned during a video conference.
The conflict between the regular army under Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, has left tens of thousands dead and displaced more than ten million people, according to the United Nations.
With the war showing no signs of abating, the delivery of humanitarian aid faces “administrative, security and logistical obstacles,” said Shible Sahbani, the WHO’s representative in Sudan.
Despite the challenges, “the WHO distributed 510 tons of medicines and aid materials between January and July,” he added, saying that two trucks entered North Darfur last week from Chad and seven trucks are en route to Darfur from Port Sudan.
Sahbani said hunger is the main factor driving Sudanese to flee the country, referring to testimonies from asylum-seekers in neighboring Chad.
A recent UN-backed report said nearly 26 million people, or slightly more than half of the population, were facing high levels of “acute food insecurity.”
Humanitarian agencies say that the difficulty of obtaining data on the ground has prevented famine from being officially declared in Sudan.
Both the army and the RSF have been accused of obstructing humanitarian aid and nearly destroying Sudan’s already fragile health care system.