Syria/Lebanon border crossing at Masnaa
8/5/13 this observer decided, quite on the spur of the moment, to take
a three day break from Damascus the next morning and make a quick trip
to Beirut to do some errands because offices would be closed starting
at dawn for Eid al Fitr celebrations (a day later for Shia Muslims).
The annual Eid al-Fitr, being the festival of the breaking of the month
long Ramadan fast, which observance is regarded as one of the Five Pillars
of Islam. And by the way, this year has been undertaken, approximately
16 hours each day in inordinately hot weather in the Middle East.
Let me say from the start: I did not anticipate the delay into which
I was about to run. In fact, I felt that with a little bit of luck—and
by leaving Damascus by no later than six in the morning—I might even
break my record of 205 minutes total from Sameriyeh bus station to my
apartment in Dahiyeh, south Beirut.
Alas, it was not to happen. In fact, I ended up setting a record for
my longest trip ever—a bit over eight hours for the usually much-quicker
88 km (55 mile) journey. It had not occurred to me that I would arrive
at the new Lebanese border crossing building at Masnaa only to find
not only was it swamped, but that it had been a scene of bedlam for
the past 20 or more hours. There were Syrian and Palestinian refugees
fleeing to Lebanon, plus hundreds of people traveling there for this
year’s Eid el Fitra holiday.
I wasn’t the only one who miscalculated. Lebanon’s General Security,
which oversees immigration facilities, apparently did so as well. When
I got out of the car, the cross border processing center was surrounded
by hundreds of travelers jostling and waiting. People were jammed and
packed inside the building as well. Some shouted, waving their passports,
trying to catch the eye of the overwhelmed but seriously under-numbered
immigration officials behind their glass cages, while others were simply
shocked, depressed by the mess they were in, and weak also from fasting.
Gape-mouthed, I stared at the steamy sweating assembly, and saw one
of the supervisors (I know several of them from frequently crossing
the border at Masnaa) and he immediately waved and summoned me to push
my way through the massive crowd to his private office. When I finally
made it, he immediately took my passport and told one of the clerks
to stamp it. Suffering yet another lapse into sometimes weak character,
I kept my mouth shut about why he was helping an American who just arrived
before assisting his fellow Arabs who had been waiting, Allah only
knows, for how long. I still feel some shame about this personal flaw
and I know better than to jump a queue. But the General, sporting
4 gold stars on each of his two shoulder epaulets, did lecture me about
what chaos he and his staff were in. A couple of security types
held pistols above the travelers heads pointed at the ceiling as the
crowd sometimes pressed sort of threateningly, against the counters
and appeared that they might be about to storm them. Some immigration
officers were scowling and shouting at people in the hall who were impatient
to advance to the counters.
“You should write a story about what you saw here today
Mr. Lamb. We need more staff! Look at my men! Have you ever seen
anything like this?”
Frankly, I hadn’t. For sure the supervisors’ all male staff did
indeed look utterly exhausted, even somewhat intimidated by the shouting
throngs. But what I encountered next was even more disturbing. Grasping
my stamped passport, I made my way out of the noisy, congested building,
to the parking lot, and up to the door of our parked service-taxi. Here
I found my two traveling companions, a middle-aged Palestinian couple
from Yarmouk who I had just met at Samariyeh, taking their luggage out
of the car. Why were they removing their luggage? I inquired of them,
thinking perhaps we had to switch vehicles for some reason. The man
put his hand on his heart and pointed toward Damascus. “Cham, (Damascus)
we go Cham. Lebanon no!” he said as he flicked his chin upward.
I did not understand exactly what the problem was, but assumed his documents
were not in order—but then suddenly I realized that that didn’t make
sense because every Palestinian must go to the Interior Ministry in
Damascus before leaving Syria, war or no war, and pay $5 to have their
documents checked and to receive an exit visa. And on top of the
$5 fee in Damascus, they have to pay a new, higher fee at the border
crossing—of $11—which until last month was only half that amount. With
little choice, we bade each other farewell. Alone now, I settled down
to wait for my driver, who seemed to have lots of friends at Masnaa.
All at once, I noticed a lady dressed in full Hijab walking my way with
a baby in her arms and with two small children, maybe three or four
years old, clinging to her skirt. And I have to say: I will not forget
this family for the rest of my life. The young mother looked as forlorn
as ever I have seen someone. Her dust-covered cheeks were moistened
and streaked by tears, her eyes red as she wept. The children were crying
also, and kept saying “baba, baba.”
She was fleeing to Lebanon—after losing her husband and her home, although
I did not learn all the details. But as with a couple of other Syrian
refugees I have met, the poor dear did not have any relatives in Lebanon,
and consequently planned, as have others in similar straits, to look
for someone from her village in Palestine, hoping, praying, believing
that such a person or persons would understand her plight and feel enough
of a bond from the Nakba to help her.
But outrageously, immigration at Masnaa barred her from entering Lebanon,
and didn’t even take the trouble to give her a reason. “Go back to Syria
where you belong” she said the immigration clerk told her. “Ask UNWRA
for help. They are responsible for you” she was told.
But no one from UNWRA was to be seen, nor was any other Palestinian
NGO. I gave her the phone number of two friends in Damascus and the
last of my Syrian and American money. It is still the case in Syria,
due to American-led sanctions, that ATM’s and credit cards cannot be
used. Consequently many westerners, like me, regularly arrive at Masnaa
from Syria, pretty broke.
fplamb 8/6/13 at Masnas border crossing.. There appears to be an office
of sorts of UNHCR at Masnaa. But it was closed for the Palestinian refugees
from Syria desperately seeking help. Where were UNWRA, UNICEF, USAID,
the Arab League, the IOIC, the 31 NGO’s in the USA and in Lebanon, as
well as the European Union who claim to work for the wellbeing of the
Palestinian refuges forced from their homes and into this unwelcoming
land? Only God knows and she has been silent recently.. This observer
saw no sign of any, or even one of them.
This mother and her babies are dreams. What happened to them is an outrage,
and who knows how many others met similar treatment on the Syrian-Lebanon
border last week? On that day at any rate, 8/6/2013, it seemed very
much that most Palestinians were being forced back into Syria.
Lebanese General Security officials need to get their stories straight.
On 8/10/2013 a GS official denied any decision on the part of Lebanese
authorities to prevent Palestinian refugees fleeing the fighting in
Syria from entering Lebanon. In remarks to pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat,
the official, whose name was withheld, insisted, “The same measures
are being applied on all the refugees (coming) to Lebanon from Syria
whether they are Palestinians or Syrians.” General Security “is implementing
the measures that were underway before the Syrian crisis started in
terms of checking their documents and identification papers,” he added.
Speaking frankly, his statement is utter nonsense. This observer spent
nearly two hours at the Masnaa crossing speaking with Palestinians who
were prevented from entering Lebanon. At the same time, I heard of no
Syrian refugees being turned back—nor, of course, should they have been.
Upon finally making it to Beirut, I emailed Amnesty International, UNHCR,
and HRW among others. The GS’s spurious arguments that “their papers
must not have been in order” insults ones intelligence.
It is well known, as noted above, that every Palestinian who wants to
come to Lebanon or to leave Syria must first go to the Palestinian Refugees
department of the Ministry of Interior in downtown Damascus and pay
the aforementioned fee. Upon doing so, they are granted an exit permit.
Every rejected Palestinian I spoke to that day at Masnaa showed me their
permit from the Ministry of the Interior. In every single case their
papers were in order.
refugees, without any money left from their many travails, are forced
to walk from the Masnaa border crossing near the Syrian/Lebanese to
the Jilil Palestinian Refugee camp near Baalbec. (photo: flamb 8/6/13)
International humanitarian law requires that Lebanon abide by the principle
of non-refoulement, a standard which prohibits sending refugees or asylum
seekers back to places where their lives or freedom are threatened.
On the day of 8/6/2013, this observer was an eyewitness to the government
of Lebanon turning back scores of Palestinian refugees while
remaining seemingly oblivious to the risks to their lives. Palestinian
families were, and still may be, stranded at Masnaa because they have
no funds to return to Syria and were barred from entering Lebanon.
If you are a no account, low life, over the hill American like this
observer and have some defect in your documentation you will likely
be OK at Masnaa and allowed in. Not to worry.
But, God forbid if you are a Palestinian refugee, for you currently
risk being barred, even if your papers are complete. As I saw
the young family starts the trek on foot back toward Damascus. I could
not help thinking, what kind of Arabs are these who give preference
to a citizen of a country that has brought this Arab region nearly unimaginable
destruction, yet shut out their own brothers and sisters who are fleeing
Every Lebanese citizen and every political party, from the anti-Palestinian
Lebanese Forces, to the claimed champions of Palestinians, including
Hezbollah, should immediately insist that the Lebanese government rescind,
without delay, its decision to bar Palestinians from Syria from entering
Lebanon. And while they are at it, General Security should stop hounding
and threatening with arrest Palestinian refugees from Syria, who came
to Lebanon during the last nearly 29 months and who cannot come up with
the $200 fee to extend their expired visas.
This would require less than an hour to accomplish, and once it is done,
there is another task that this observer submits is urgently needed:
for the Lebanese President and the Prime Minister to issue, toute de
suite, an emergency decree granting the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
the elementary right to work and to own a home. If and when Parliament
stops posturing politically and actually does some of the work for the
Lebanese people that they are paid huge sums to carry out, it can take
90 minutes to enact these basic civil rights into law. And Lebanon will
benefit enormously in terms of growth of economy which is taking a nose-dive
resulting from the Syrian crisis and the now collapsed summer tourism.
is true that the Lebanese government is struggling to meet the needs
of the growing refugee population, but as Joe Stork, HRW deputy Middle
East director and friend of the late American Journalist Janet Lee Stevens,
has pointed out, shutting them out is no answer.
is egregious and illegal for a country to deny safe haven to any refugee
fleeing probable death. It is doubly egregious for Lebanon to bar devoted
Muslims sanctuary during the Holy month of Ramadan.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and Lebanon and can be reached