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Lebanon has deported hundreds of refugees back to their home country of Syria

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Lebanon, a tiny country of about 5 million people, hosts over 1.5 million refugees from the war in Syria. But now, Lebanon is facing its own economic and political crisis, and anger there toward Syrians has soared. In recent months, security forces have forcibly deported hundreds of refugees back to Syria, which the U.N. and rights groups say is illegal under international law. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: We enter a shabby building of cinder block walls and peeling paint to meet a Syrian refugee who's asked me to prevent others from seeing my microphone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: In April, he and his family were forcibly deported in the dead of night back to Syria. His wife and baby daughter and son are still there, but he's managed to smuggle himself back into Lebanon. He's in hiding, fearing he'll be sent back, and only agrees to speak on condition that we don't reveal his name or location. Through an interpreter, he tells me how, one morning in April, before dawn, he heard a commotion outside.

UNIDENTIFIED REFUGEE: (Through interpreter) I saw the street was filled with army personnel. I told my wife to wake up the kids.

SHERLOCK: The soldiers went to every apartment, breaking down the doors of those that didn't answer. They sent everyone into the street.

UNIDENTIFIED REFUGEE: (Through interpreter) We were all in our pajamas. You know, some people went down with their slippers. They didn't tell us that we were going to be deported. So we left everything, and we just went down, carrying my children with me.

SHERLOCK: The men were handcuffed and separated from their wives and daughters. They were loaded onto one army truck and the women and children onto others.

UNIDENTIFIED REFUGEE: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: They were driven directly to the Syrian border. Seeing the families, many still barely dressed, a Syrian officer was shocked.

UNIDENTIFIED REFUGEE: (Through interpreter) He said, what happened? And we explained that we were detained, like, from our beds.

SHERLOCK: Syrian officials held everyone for five days, asking them about their history. Had they ever opposed the Syrian government? The men were in a cell so overcrowded they had to take turns to lie down. The Syrian we spoke with says he was released on the condition that he immediately sign up for military service. Others weren't so lucky. He says three of the deportees were not allowed to go free. One was a defector from the Syrian army. His family were too afraid to be interviewed, but told NPR they've not heard from him since.

Aya Mazjoub from Amnesty International says it's illegal to force anyone back to a country where they are in danger or face persecution.

AYA MAZJOUB: So these acts definitely do violate Lebanon's obligations under international law.

SHERLOCK: The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it's aware of 97 raids by the Lebanese army over the last couple of months, with hundreds of Syrians deported. Children have been deported alone without their parents, and parents have been taken without their children. The Lebanese army would not reply to our requests for comment. We did sit down with Ziad Mikati, an adviser to the prime minister on Syrian refugees.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Would you like coffee or tea?

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHERLOCK: But he repeatedly denied even knowing about the deportations.

ZIAD MIKATI: The question you're asking is not - I cannot answer it personally. I'm not aware of it.

SHERLOCK: You're not aware of the mass deportations of Syrians despite being the person in charge of this file?

MIKATI: I'm in charge of the policies - again, not the services.

SHERLOCK: It's just - it seems like you're kind of scapegoating the - like, avoiding the responsibility.

MIKATI: If I had information on that, I would share it with you.

SHERLOCK: He says, among other things, Lebanon is gathering information on who's an asylum-seeker and who's an economic migrant.

MIKATI: The short-term strategy is basically to organize the portfolio of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

SHERLOCK: He says, in the future, the state will work with UNHCR and that no person who might face persecution in Syria will be deported. It's a promise, though, that the Lebanese government has made before.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.