BEIRUT: Lebanon has told more than a million Syrian refugees they will lose their refugee status if they cross back into Syria, a move likely to discourage many from voting at polling stations on the border in Tuesday’s presidential election.
Tens of thousands of Syrians voted at their Beirut embassy in an early round of expatriate voting last week and Syrian officials said those who were unable to get to the embassy should go to polling stations on the border for the June 3 poll.
The scale of turnout at the embassy and the vocal displays of support for President Bashar al-Assad angered Assad’s Lebanese opponents, who said any refugees who took part should be sent back to Syria.
Lebanon’s Interior Ministry made no mention of the election in its warning to the Syrian refugees, but said it was acting to “prevent any friction or mutual provocation” between Syrians and their Lebanese host communities.
The three-year-old conflict has deepened political divisions in Lebanon and fuelled violence including bombings, rocket attacks and gun battles. The Hezbollah-dominated March 8 political coalition supports Assad while its March 14 opponents have backed the rebels trying to topple him.
The presence of a million Syrians from a seemingly endless conflict has also raised fears that Lebanon’s 4 million population may end up hosting a permanent refugee population several times larger than the Palestinian influx which helped destabilize the country before its 1975-1990 civil war.
“All displaced Syrians and those registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are asked to refrain from entering Syria as of June 1, 2014, under penalty of losing their refugee status in Lebanon,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement issued on Saturday.
UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman said the government’s message had been relayed to the refugees.
She said the United Nations did not have data on the number of refugees who have made trips back home, but said some did go back briefly to check on their land and property.