Lebanon-born Palestinian refugee barred from Beirut-bound Covid-19 evacuation flight
Despite already boarding the flight and obtaining a green light from the Lebanese embassy, Lebanon-born Palestinian refugee Tarek Rafic Abu Taha (31-years-old) was kicked-off the ٍMay 3 flight by a Lebanese air mashal minutes before take off.
Taha says he was met with 'racist remarks and inhumane' treatment by the Lebanese security agent.
The air marshal cited an obscure circular issued by the Lebanese General Security (DGSG), an agency responsible for immigration in Lebanon, apparently barring the return of Lebanon-based Palestinian refugees and "foreign maids" until further notice. However, it seems the Lebanese embassy in the UAE had not been aware of the order, giving him permission to be on the evacuation flight.
Issued at the start of May according to a copy obtained by The New Arab, the circular excludes "accompanying maids and people of Palestinian descent" from boarding Lebanese expatriate evacuation flights.
Taha, a husband and father of a young toddler, was stranded in the Gulf state due to the Covid-19 pandemic, following coronavirus-imposed travel restrictions by both Lebanon and the UAE.
"I went to look for work and I was forced to stay here. I became penniless and couldn't afford food, let alone accommodation," Taha said.
A Lebanese family has since stepped in to support Taha "while the Lebanese embassy failed to provide any assistance", he claimed.
The Palestinian refugee had applied for repatriation to his home through the Lebanese consulate in Dubai and filled in the necessary forms and signed a health pledge, as instructed. Taha was given the go ahead by the embassy to book a ticket after his name was added to the passenger manifest of the Beirut-bound flight from Dubai on Sunday, operated by Lebanese national carrier Middle East Airlines.
The Lebanese embassy, he said, was aware he was Palestinian when he applied. "I sent them a photo of my Palestinian travel document issued by the Lebanese government. They didn't raise any issues at the time," Taha said.
According to Taha, up to the minute he was about to board, the evactuation flight there were no signs that airline officials were aware of a ban on Palestinians.
"No one seemed to know about the circular. After the incident, the embassy decided to make an exception and let me board the flight. But by then it was already too late. The plane had shut its door seven minutes earlier and was preparing for take-off," Taha said. "Now, the MEA won't even refund the flight."
On Sunday, in a public Facebook post that made the rounds on social media, Taha recounted his experience, writing that he was "humiliated", after he was barred from boarding the flight to Lebanon, despite obtaining a UAE exit stamp.
|No one seemed to know about the circular. After the incident, the embassy decided to make an exception and let me board the flight. But by then it was already too late.|
In his account, Taha said he received racist remarks from one of the Lebanese general security officers who allegedly referred to Palestinians as 'azaar' - a Lebanese derogatory term which roughly translates as "thugs".
The New Arab reached out to the Lebanese General Security chief at Beirut airport, Brigadier General Walid Aoun, who issued the circular, but was told he is unavailable for comment.
The call was redirected to a DGSG phone line operator who confirmed the existence of the circular issued by Aoun, adding that Palestinians had been barred from returning since the airport stopped operating commercial flights.
"Till now, all people being repatriated are Lebanese. It's not allowed for non-Lebanese to return at the moment, we will issue further circulars if anything changes," the DGSG official said.
The MEA call centre did not have any information about the reported incident and circular, while the flight company's Public Relations office did not respond in time for publication.
The incident sparked outrage among Lebanese and Palestinians, prompting politicians and groups to respond.
Lebanese MP Paula Yaacoubian said she was following up on the incident with the head of General Security Abbas Ibrahim. Yaacoubian told The New Arab that "the circular is an embarrassment".
In response to the backlash, the DGSG issued a statement on Monday, saying investigations were being launched due to misconduct allegations by the Lebanese air marshal, but also confirmed the existence of the circular.
The DGSG said the ban on Palestinians was made "in accordance to the decision of the Council of Ministers to repatriate the Lebanese exclusively" at this stage, adding that "non-Lebanese" who have the right to enter Lebanon will be allowed to return "at later stages", without specifying the exact timeframe.
The Lebanese Embassy in Abu Dhabi has since put up information warning Palestinian refugees about the policy barring from the repatriations.
"In reference to the circular note issued by the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security, kindly note that the renewal of the Palestinian travel documents has stopped. It is advised to apply for a new travel document by using the DHL services," a statement on the embassy's website now says.
"Palestinians were not informed about this. They applied and waited like anyone else and were surprised by this decision," a media spokesperson for Palestinian Association For Human Rights ('Shahid') told The New Arab.
Gasia Ohanes is a journalist with The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @GasiaOhanes