Lebanon says ‘no decision’ to bar Palestinians fleeing Syria

BEIRUT - Lebanon said on Tuesday there is "no decision" to block Palestinians and other refugees from Syria entering the country, after the UN and a rights group criticised the deportation of 41 people.

In a meeting chaired by Interior Minister Nohad al-Mashnuq, the country's security agencies agreed "there is absolutely no decision to bar them from entry, and the border is open to them", reported the official National News Agency.

The report came after the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said it was "concerned about the increased restrictions on Palestine refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria from entering Lebanon." Human Rights Watch (HRW) had also reported Palestinians being "arbitrarily denied entry" at a border crossing from Syria, and said around 40 people had been deported.

The New York-based rights group said deportations into an active war zone violated international law.

A Lebanese security agency source told AFP on Tuesday that 41 people, including many Palestinians, were returned to Syria after they were caught trying to fly out from Beirut airport using fake visas.

The NNA said: "The decision to deport them was because they committed a criminal offence, because they had forged documents in their possession." More than a million people have fled Syria's brutal war, including around 52,000 Palestinians.

Lebanon has not signed the international refugee convention, but has generally kept its borders open to people fleeing the Syrian conflict.

With more than a million refugees from Syria, including 52,000 Palestinians, Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees from the conflict and now has the highest refugee population per capita in the world.

'No safe place'

The international community has praised Lebanon, which has a population of just four million, for absorbing so many of those fleeing Syria.

Despite its recent criticisms, HRW urged foreign governments to better assist Beirut in hosting refugees.

"Concerned governments should generously assist neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, so that they can meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria," HRW's deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork said.

Once numbering 500,000 in Syria, Palestinians have been targeted by both sides in the war, making them one of the country's most vulnerable groups.

"All civilians in Syria are targets, but the Palestinians are especially vulnerable," Wissam Sabaaneh of the Palestinian Jafra Foundation told AFP.

Syria's biggest Palestinian area, Yarmuk in southern Damascus, has been under total blockade by the Syrian army since last year and more than 100 people have died there as a result of food and medical shortages, according to a Syrian monitoring group.

Turkey and Jordan have set up camps for Syrian refugees, but have blocked entry to Palestinians, said Sabaaneh.

"Lebanon is the only place they can go to," he said.