In Lebanon, Syrian refugees face new pressure to go home

There are around 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (File/AFP)
Updated 20 June 2019

In Lebanon, Syrian refugees face new pressure to go home

  • Lebanon has one of the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world
  • Similarly to Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment is rising in the country

ARSAL, Lebanon: Lebanese authorities are making their most aggressive campaign yet for Syrian refugees to return home and are taking action to ensure they can’t put down roots.

Mirroring the rise of anti-migrant sentiment in Europe and around the world, some in Lebanon say that after eight years of war in neighboring Syria they have had enough of the burden of the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world — 1 million amid a Lebanese population of nearly 5 million — especially at a time when they are facing austerity measures and a weakened economy.

Anti-refugee sentiment in Lebanon has waxed and waned in the past. It’s been persistent but limited among a public torn by conflicting feelings — resentment over past domination by Syria and worry over the refugees’ impact on their country’s delicate sectarian balance, but also sympathy for the refugees amid memories of their own displacement during Lebanon’s long civil war.

But this time a rising star in the country’s politics has latched onto the issue. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has led the campaign, saying Syrians should return home and using nationalist language, like saying the “genetic distinction” of Lebanese will unite them to confront the refugee issue.

During one rally organized by Bassil’s party this month — held under the slogan of “Employ a Lebanese” — protesters chanted, “Syria get out,” and some attempted to storm a shop run by a Syrian, sparking a scuffle. Posters have popped up in streets and online calling on residents to report any Syrian working without a permit.

The tensions point to how a backlash in host countries burdened by long and intractable refugee situations intertwines with local politics at a time when numbers of displaced worldwide have swelled to record levels. The UN refugee agency said Wednesday 71 million people are uprooted from their homes as of this year — 26 million of them refugees, double the number the world had 20 years ago.

“Out of this grim number, Lebanon stands out as the country that has the highest number of refugees per capita,” said Mireille Girard, the UNHCR representative in Lebanon. “It is a huge responsibility that Lebanon is shouldering and the whole world has to show solidarity with the countries that are in the front of refugee flow.”

Allies of Bassil in the government have begun enforcing laws that were previously rarely implemented, shutting down shops owned by or employing Syrians without permits and ordering the demolition of anything in refugee camps that could be a permanent home.

The refugees are trying to weather the storm.

In the town of Arsal, near the Syrian border, where 60,000 refugees live in informal camps set up in the fields, Syrians have been tearing down brick and concrete walls they had built trying to make their shacks of canvas, sheet metal and plastic able to withstand the elements in the mountainous areas that sees harsh winters. The military gave them until July 1 to remove any wall taller than waist high.

The Syrians said no matter how much authorities squeeze them, they have no choice but to stay.

“They think a concrete block is what’s keeping us here?” one woman, Um Hassan, said angrily. She said she can’t go back because her sons will be drafted into the military of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The demolition order, she said, left her and her family sleeping without a roof over their head for over a week.

Most of the Syrians who came to Lebanon since 2011 were impoverished and dispossessed. Despite years of receiving aid, 51 percent of Syrian refugee families survive on less than $3 a day and 88 percent of households are in debt. Of more than 660,000 school-aged Syrians in Lebanon, 54% are not enrolled in formal education and an estimated 40% remain out of any kind of certified schooling.

Many Lebanese, in turn, complain that — despite $6 billion of foreign aid invested to support Lebanon — the flood of refugees has overwhelmed schools and the already debilitated infrastructure, increased rents and forced Lebanese to compete with cheap Syrian labor. Some are resentful of aid stipends some Syrians receive, pointing out that they don’t pay taxes and often work illegally as well.

Lebanese face an upcoming year of austerity measures trying to repair the economy. Critics say politicians are using the Syrians as a scapegoat for Lebanon’s worsening economic crisis and endemic corruption.

“The Lebanese public is frustrated and ... wants anything to dump all their anger on. So who is the weakest, the refugee,” said journalist Diana Moukalled.

Bassil is the leader of the largest Christian party in parliament and the government and the son-in-law of the country’s president. He has been mobilizing a popular base and boosting his credentials as the prime protector of Christians — some believe with the aim of one day replacing his 84-year father in law, President Michel Aoun.

He has popularized the term “Lebanon above all,” while warning of an “international conspiracy” to settle Syrians in Lebanon. While pushing at home for implementation of laws against refugees, he has lobbied abroad for increased aid to Lebanon and an organized return of refugees.

He has gained ground in a political sphere divided over refugees and the Syrian war in general.

“The one who speaks of refugees returning is not a racist or a fascist, and those accusing us of racism either benefit (from the issue) or are conspirators,” he said during a recent conference.

Bassil’s ally, Hezbollah, has backed Assad’s government in the fight against rebels. His political opponents — including other Christian parties and the main Muslim Sunni party led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri — have sided with Syria’s opposition. Hariri called Bassil’s rhetoric “racist,” and the prime minister and his allied have pushed against his campaign.

At a recent small rally in Beirut, politicians, activists and Syrians held banners against hate speech. Paula Yacoubian, an independent Armenian Christian politician at the rally, said the campaign to “dehumanize” refugees is irresponsible.

“This is destructive and, even if it brings someone popularity for now, in the long run it is very harmful, for Lebanon and the Lebanese first of all,” she said.

Nasser Yassin, a professor of public policy at the American University of Beirut, said he doesn’t believe there will be a widespread public backlash against the refugees. But the rise of similar sentiments around the world makes it harder to challenge.

“If Europe is actually violating human rights when it comes to pushing people trying to cross the Mediterranean back to the Libyan militias, they will turn a blind eye or (be) silent when the Lebanese government is applying it,” he said.

The campaign is not simply political rhetoric.

Local vigilantes recently set fire to three tents in a refugee camp in the eastern town of Deir Al-Ahmar, and Syrians there scuffled with the Lebanese firefighters, injuring one. An eviction order followed from the municipality, forcing 400 Syrians to move to a new spot to set up their tents.

In a possible violation of its international obligations, Lebanon in April deported at least 16 Syrians, including some registered as refugees, after they arrived in Beirut airport. Human Rights Watch and other groups said some of the deported expressed fear of persecution in Syria and were forced to sign “voluntary” repatriation forms, despite Beirut’s commitment not to forcibly return any Syrians.

Lebanese authorities estimate that over 170,000 Syrians have returned to their country between December 2017 and March 2019, many through government-organized bus trips.

Aid groups and many Western countries say conditions are not yet right for refugees’ return to Syria, with lack of a political resolution and guarantees for their security.

In Arsal, Abu Fares, an organizer of the Syrian camp, said the campaign to apply labor and building laws really aims to harass Syrians into returning home. He is campaigning to get an exemption or longer grace period for the disabled or elderly in the camp who can’t do their own demolition.

A defector from Syria’s police force, Abu Fares said he can’t even fathom a return to Syria without a political settlement, a pardon and new laws. “But if they can’t have us here, just say it and take us out of Lebanon” to another country besides Syria, he said.

But some have succumbed to pressure. Arsal’s mayor, Bassel Al-Hujairi, said nearly 200 Syrians registered to return to Syria after the new orders to bring down the walls.

Abu Ossama, a 74-year old Syrian and a retired army general, said he put his name on the list.

“I used to be safe here. It is not anymore,” he said. “God will be my protector.”

Security forces keep radical protesters away from French Embassy in Beirut

Updated 25 min 23 sec ago

Security forces keep radical protesters away from French Embassy in Beirut

  • Calls for a demonstration by radical Islamic groups spread on social media platforms
  • Security forces had anticipated Friday’s protest and tightened security in the heart of Beirut

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces prevented the arrival of hundreds of protesters at the French ambassador’s residence and the French Embassy in Lebanon on Friday.

They feared the recurrence of riots similar to the ones that erupted in front of the Danish Embassy in Ashrafieh, Beirut, in 2006, and led to 28 people being injured, damage to storefronts, and the burning of the consulate building and terrorizing of people.

A few hundred worshippers left mosques after Friday prayers and marched to defend the Prophet Muhammad.

Calls for a demonstration by radical Islamic groups spread on social media platforms.

Khaldoun Qawwas, Dar Al-Fatwa’s media spokesperson, told Arab News: “These groups have nothing to do with Dar Al-Fatwa, which has already announced its position regarding what happened in France in two separate statements.”

Sheikh Abdul Latif Deryan, the grand mufti of Lebanon, in a statement issued a week earlier, said that “freedom of opinion and expression does not entail insulting the beliefs and symbols of others, and this requires a reconsideration of the concept of absolute freedom.”

He stressed the “renunciation of violence and confrontation of radicalism and terrorism that has no religion or race.”

Security forces had anticipated Friday’s protest and tightened security in the heart of Beirut, since the embassy and the French ambassador’s residence are located where roads leading to the city’s western and eastern neighborhoods intersect. This led to a huge traffic jam in the capital.

The protest’s starting point was the Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque in Al-Mazraa, situated only a few kilometers from the Residence des Pins (Pine Residence).

Three major security checkpoints — one set up by the riot police — separated the Residence des Pins and protesters, some of whom were transported by buses from the north of Lebanon to Beirut.

Protesters held Islamic signs and chanted slogans denouncing France, its President Emmanuel Macron and its former colonization of the country. Some protesters tried to remove barbed wire and threw stones, water bottles and batons at the security forces. Another group burned the French flag. Security forces responded by throwing tear gas canisters, leading to the retreat of the protesters.

In a statement, Lebanon’s Supreme Council of the Roman Catholic condemned “the terrorist attack in the French city of Nice.”

The council considered that “this terrorist crime has nothing to do with Islam and Muslims. It is an individual act carried out by terrorists haunted by radicalism, obscurantism and the rejection of the French people’s historical civilizational values. Through their acts, they abuse the spirit of tolerance, coexistence, acceptance of the other and the freedom of thought and belief which all religions call for.”

The council called for “staying away from defaming religions and beliefs and inciting hate and resentment among people, raising the voice of moderation, wisdom and reason, working together in the spirit of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together announced by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb from the UAE last year.”

During the Friday sermon, Grand Jaafari Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan condemned “any criminal act against any people, including the French people.” He added: “We categorically reject what happened in Nice yesterday, strongly condemn it and consider it a blatant and insolent attack on Muslims before others.”

He simultaneously condemned “the official French position that affronted the Prophet, took lightly and made light of the feelings of millions of Muslims.”